♥ Guest Post ♥
In Search of East Coast Charm
By Kerry Peresta
“Whatcha waitin’ for honey,” the grocery checker asked, cracking her gum. “Christmas?
“Oh, sorry,” I said, digging for my keys, to which were affixed multiple plastic tags. She held out one hand expectantly. It took me several seconds to locate the right one. Sweat trickled from my forehead to my eyes. I slapped it away. The checker’s eyes narrowed. Her lips turned down at the corners. I glanced at her face with an apologetic smile and redoubled my efforts.
“Debit or credit?” Her gum popped and snapped.
“Credit,” I said, swiping my debit card.
“Didn’t take it,” she said. “Do it again.” She rolled her eyes at the faces in line behind me. I swiped again. Success! I threw my four plastic bags in my cart and got outta there, heaving a sigh of relief.
When had grocery shopping become such a stressful event? My forehead crinkled as I ran out to the parking lot, dumped the groceries in my trunk, slammed the trunk shut, jogged to put the cart in the pick-up rack.
When we’d moved to the east coast, my brain responded. When life’s tempo had upticked from a friendly stop and visit awhile, step up here on my veranda and sit yourself down to a hectic don’t even try to talk to me, can’t you see I’m busy by the irritable expression on my face? And what the heck is a veranda?
My husband and I recently moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to the Baltimore metro area for a job opportunity. We’ve had to speed up everything, including brain function. It’s been quite an adjustment, but on the bright side it is easier to burn calories when your metabolism rocks along at warp speed. At this rate, I’ll be a size two in approximately one year.
After three years of adjusting, we started to miss southern hospitality, so we booked a week in Hilton Head, South Carolina. The experience left us reeling. We hadn’t realized we’d strayed so far from our roots. People – total strangers – were incredibly warm and friendly. The further south we drove, the more relaxed we felt. We felt the difference everywhere. Gas stations, rest stops – even fast food places had smiling, sweet people ready to fulfill our every wish. We unwound on Hilton Head’s marvelous beaches with nary a speedy thought; Marylanders’ barked words and steely eyes a distant memory.
When we returned to our cozy home about twenty-five minutes northeast of Baltimore, I skipped into a local grocery store, freshly energized, to pick up a few things. I oozed southern charm and smiled at everyone in sight. People looked at me like I had lost my mind. Undeterred, I continued to checkout, basking in the memory of the friendly, talkative experiences we’d had in Hilton Head. As I loaded the conveyor with my purchases, I figured I’d slop some charm on the checkout person.
“Hey, how’s your day goin’ ? My eyes sought hers. My lips curved into a winsome smile. She narrowed her eyes at me and grunted.
I pulled my cart to the handy disgorging slot that fairly screams for clerks to extend an arm three extra inches and swing the loaded bags into the shopping cart for the customer. Instead of putting the loaded bags courteously in my cart, she plunked each bag in the opposite direction. I sighed and pushed my cart around to the end and loaded it myself. I wistfully remembered the grocery stores in the south that took all items out of the cart when you rolled up to their lane, put them on the conveyor, loaded the bags and put the bags into the cart with a smile. Then they said, “Ya’ll come back now!” and meant it. No grunting. No stony faces.
I refused to give up on southern charm just because eastern charm was hiding. Surely it existed. I simply had to dig for it, like gold. “So how about this day? Isn’t it beautiful today?” I waited, smiling.
“Discount card?” she asked without looking at me.
“Oh, sure, here.” I handed her the card. She handed it back.
“Credit or debit?” Her fingers zipped across her keyboard.
“Credit.” My face deflated. My eyes riveted themselves to the floor. I looked over my shoulder at shoppers in neighboring checkout lanes. Not a single smile. One person frowned. I quickly returned my gaze to the safety of the floor.
I plopped the last of the bags into my cart and took the receipt from the clerk’s hand. I didn’t bother to give her a grin or say have a nice day! No need. She had already moved to the next customer. I trudged to my car, my newly resurrected southern bonhomie evaporating with every step.
My husband and I have had several East vs. South discussions, and have come to the brilliant conclusion that friendliness might be directly related to number of human beings per square mile. The Baltimore/DC metro area has millions of people living shoulder-to-shoulder, fighting for the best jobs. Not much time or energy to spare. Perhaps it’s a trade-off: live in a populous metro area with more professional and recreational choices or live in a less populous area with plenty of hospitality and charm but fewer options. At this point, we’ve made a conscious choice: keep the job and learn to subdue charm expectations. (Which is oh-so-ironic given that Baltimore’s nickname is Charm City.)
It’ll take a while, but my husband and I are making every effort to sideline our sugary-sweet southern hospitality. We’ll learn to compartmentalize it, tie it up with a bow, and take it out as a gift to ourselves when we head south again.
Until then, if you smile at me and I do not smile back, I’m just practicing. Please don’t take it personally.
♥, Kerry Peresta