Aug 5, 2008

Experiment Smile.

** If you've not seen "The King & I" this may not make sense to you***

When I was in high school, and had a terrible crush on Ron Vilar - the star of Pleasantville High School's critically acclaimed Spring musical, "The King & I" - there was a song that I loved- The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Then, there was this other song- Just Whistle a Happy Tune- or some optimistic rubbish conveying a similar message.

The context of the latter song, about whistling, was that Ms. Anna's son, Louis, was afraid in some situation or another in there new place of residence- Siam. In her infinite motherly wisdom, Ms. Anna suggested that Louis whistle a "happy tune" and "no one will suspect" that he was, in fact, afraid. Whistling would convey and air of confidence and comfort.

Much to Ms. Anna's chagrin, I can neither whistle nor polka (1-2-3 and 1-2-3). I have, however, found a brilliant substitute.

The similarities between Siam and South Central Harlem are numbered, but I do at times find myself in uncomfortable situations - a large large man walking 6 inches behind me for 3 blocks, a congregation outside of the local liquor store, and so on and so forth.

Let it be clarified that this fear is not unique to Harlem. I felt the same nervousness while living in the ghetto of Torino, Italy and when passing a group of crunchy partiers sitting on their lawn in Sugarhouse Salt Lake. I wholly attribute this keen sense of impending danger to my avid watching of Law & Order SVU. ANYWAY...

My brilliant substitute is, in fact, the smile. Such a simple thing- the flex of a cheek or 2, the nod of a head. It seems that Harlem residents hardly know what to do with themselves when greeted by my slightly-less-than-straight pearly ivories. (I can hardly call them white). Much like exposing my throat to the wolf pack leader or physically giving way to the superiority of the silver back male, my smile initially let any potential attacker know that I was neither hostile nor a threat. What started as a passive attempt to thwart aggression, however, has turned into a fascinating social experiment. I now smile all the way home from 116th, not because I'm afraid or uncomfortable, but because Harlem residents seem to be astonished and rather pleased by my grin. I must say, in this regard, they have impeccable manners.

Here's me smiling, back when I was 5 or so.
I've had a lot of smile practice.

Take today for example...
Smile Victim: skinny elderly male, with innumerable number of bags packed with who knows what, in desperate need of bathing, approaching me on Lenox.
Me: Smile
Him: OK. All right. Yeah (smile back)

Smile Victim: large Puerto Rican woman, giving me the up and down coupled with a grimace, as I strolled by FineFare exiting the subway
Her: Stare up and down twice, with displeased visage
Me: Smile
Her: Gold Shoes! (smile back)
*I wore gold shoes today, and never would have known she was admiring them, had I not made the gesture.

Smile Victim: strong build, tall, 50-something man in Rasta hat, dreads extending to his lower back with a beautiful white beard, standing against the wall on St. Nick's
Me: Smile and nod (he needed some extra attention)
Him: Why hello sweetheart. You have a good one.

The congregation outside the liquor store, which I pass regularly, now smiles at me first. A man last week thought I was "bright eyed and bushy tailed" all because I smiled.

Next week, I'm taking on the projects down the street.


jenny said...

i get very nervous around strangers so i will have to try this experiment! sometimes kate smiles for me and warms people up.

Alex said...

I smile at all the summer fund raisers at union square who hawk me for "30 seconds of my time." I like to think it makes the rejection less harsh. And I also like to think I'm never fully dressed without it!

angelique said...

do our mother a favor and do not go into the projects and start smiling at people, she'd have a heart attack

glad (but not surprised) to hear you're wrapping Harlem around your little finger - is there no end to the powers of your charm?

emilyhutchison said...

I can't believe you blogged admitted to having a high school crush on a drama "king". Noni, didn't we discuss building up your street cred? He must have done one hell of a Yul Brehnar impersonation.

Jake and Jenna said...

for this reason alone, you are meant to be in harlem. you're changing people, one smile at a time.