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Nina In New York: A New Yorker’s Visit Below The Mason-Dixon Line

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Cheesecake on a stick at the National Banana Pudding Festival (credit: Nina Pajak/CBSNewYork)

Cheesecake on a stick at the National Banana Pudding Festival (credit: Nina Pajak/CBSNewYork)

A young professional’s take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.
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By Nina Pajak

Once a year, my friend Clare and I like to pick a random destination in America and spend a weekend exploring, eating, and doing nerdy, elderly things like antiques shopping, tasting homemade jams, and visiting pretzel factories. So far, we’ve covered most of New England and Pennsylvania Amish country, where we were both loved and feared for our undeniable “Otherness,” as an undergrad lit professor or psychotherapist would call it.

This past weekend, we took our Other selves to Nashville, Tennessee, aka Music City, aka The Nicest Place on Earth (sorry, Disneyworld). It was, in a word, delicious. And in another word, nice. Nicety nice nice nice. Seriously. Even the elevator in our hotel was the nicest person I’ve ever met. She had this hilariously chipper, human voice that made her sound like a cheerleader trapped in the body of an elevator, and she couldn’t have been happier with her job. We imagined what she would really say if she’d been programmed more liberally.

“6th floor! Doors closing! Puppies and rainbows are my favorite!”

“Doors opening! I love you! You’re so pretty!”

“Going down! Down is the best!”

“Going up! Up is the best! Happy birthday! Happiest day ever!”

But back to delicious. The primary way in which Clare and I choose to experience a new region is to eat our way across it. So when we landed, before heading into the city of Nashville, we first hopped in a rental car and drove a bazillion miles into deep Tennessee backwoods to check out the National Banana Pudding Festival. On the way, we saw a creepy old man hitchhiking, lots of trees, and real, live cows and horses. It was exciting! The festival turned out to be a county fair at a little community agricultural center. We immediately set about eating things on sticks, including a revelatory creation called “fried banana pudding,” and an entire slice of cheesecake dipped in chocolate. Then we tasted eight different kinds of banana pudding and, not quite at the point of projectile vomiting, moved on to fried pickles.

national banana pudding festival Nina In New York: A New Yorkers Visit Below The Mason Dixon Line

The National Banana Pudding Festival (credit: bananapuddingfest.org)

Hey, if we were going to be in America, we were going to dive right in.

We stuck out like sore thumbs, and everyone we encountered led by asking where we were from. When we said “New York,” we were met with consistent shock.

“Why did you come here?”

“Um. Because we really like banana pudding?” We waited for the eye-roll or the look at that said we must be insane, which we’ve gotten on so many other trips. It never came.

“That’s so great! Hey, Joe, these girls are from New York City! You girls are great. Here, have a box of Nilla Wafers and be sure to sign our guest book!”

After that, we led with the New York thing pretty freely, all to similar reactions.

Over the course of the weekend, we were constantly shocked by how genuinely chatty, friendly, solicitous and sweet everyone was. From our hotel valet to bartenders to Vanderbilt students to shop owners, people were astoundingly nice. And rather than be taken aback or mistrustful or cynical about it, as I would be were I to encounter the same behavior here, I couldn’t get enough of it. I felt a sense of lightness and happiness which would normally make me want to puke. I was into it! I wanted to talk to everyone and smile and be smiled at and have it not be weird or creepy. I felt a warmth around us throughout the entire weekend, and it didn’t feel forced or fake or irritating in any way.

On Sunday, we decided to check out Nashville’s “Battle of the Food Trucks” event being held at their minor league baseball stadium. We foolishly chose to walk, because New Yorkers walk. Apparently, Nashvillians do not. By the time we realized it was too late to change our minds, we’d already walked several miles in the increasingly hot sun and had wandered over and under multiple highways, past empty stretches of road populated with motorboat dealerships and wholesale tile warehouses. The only other human being we saw was a mentally ill man, laughing and screeching to himself. When we finally arrived at the stadium, we were greeted with “sold out” signs on the parking lot fence. We nearly collapsed.

We fully anticipated the parking lot attendants to shrug their shoulders and mutter, “too bad.” But they didn’t. They said, “you walked??? What’s wrong with you?” and then they said, “well, go see the ticket sales people. Maybe they can help you out. Good luck!” Already heartened by their hopefulness, we shlepped another third of a mile to the ticket table, where a friendly (obviously) woman smiled and beckoned us to her station.

“We’re from New York and we walked here from Vanderbilt and no tickets! So sad! Visiting! Weekend! Why don’t you walk places? Highways and crazy man and rutabegarutabega blahblahblahblah!” We exploded our sob story all at once, talking on top of each other. She looked at us for a moment, trying to process what we were asking. Her gaze softened.

“Tell ya what, hon. Can ya pay for the tickets?”

Oh, dear. She thought we’d walked in our designer jeans and Ray Bans because we couldn’t afford a ride, like two chic hobos who’d spent all their money on clothing and wound up homeless but very well-dressed. We assured her it was no problem, and secretly wondered what she would have said if we’d actually shown up with no reservations and no money. Seriously, who is that nice? After we bought our tickets, she ripped off a couple of extra soda vouchers.

“Y’all look like you need something cool to drink,” she said. “Now have fun! And you know we have taxis here, right? Listen, I’ll drive ya home if you really need it!”

We promised her we didn’t and thanked her profusely.

I swear, everything we ate at that event tasted better to us than to anyone else there. And we ate a lot.

Epilogue: We landed in New York on that cold, rainy Monday and hopped in a cab for home. On our way into Manhattan, our taxi driver talked on the phone and clipped his fingernails at the same time. It was gross, and it smelled like soup in the car. Somehow, it didn’t bother me as much as it would have a week before.

Moral of the story: Much like the banana pudding and rich Southern food on which we gorged ourselves last weekend, it only seems right to reserve our doses of exceptional and indiscriminate kindness and good manners. As soft as we’d get from eating cheesecake on a stick or pulled pork every day of the week, the same goes for indulging in nice. These types of luxuries should be seen as treats to be enjoyed on special occasions and vacations from the real world. Otherwise, we’d never know to appreciate them.

Other moral of the story: I should be a lot nicer to Southern tourists in New York.

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Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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