I haven't been back "home" in New York for about five and a half months. Since heading off for university two years ago, it's the longest time I've spent away from New York. Actually, it's the longest time I've spent away from the Tri-State Area...ever.
Nothing special, I know, not in comparison to the rest of my family: from my mother's semi-annual trips to her homeland, to my father's lack of ties to his rather faraway homeland (South Africa), all the way to the fact that my grandfather has not been in his hometown, a dusty outpost in a rural patch of South African grassland, since 1953. One hundred and sixty days: absolutely piecemeal!
Things have changed. Some of these shifts are obvious: for example, the trees were bare when I left, and now branches are covered in layers of green leaves.
Some of the shifts are less obvious.
I'm used to these shifts in general - every visit to the family brings more - but this visit is really making me ask whether it's my tastes and preferences that have changed, or actual things.
The answer is "a lot of both."
I will not wander off into the clichéd and sanctimonious discussions of how I have changed. Other than some awkward moments of confusion at Shabbat services, not much of these shifts are worthy of lengthy discussion right now.
But some little things have altered in the five and a half months I have been gone. Besides the obvious answers of "family dynamic," "nature," and "who has what going on," smaller things have shifted. Examples include:
* The billboard advertisements have gotten a bit more kawaii and "cute" - including one of my personal pet peeves, "happy to be eaten" animals. One advertisement for the Oyster Bar restaurant in New York - a rather tourist-oriented and most kashrut-challenged seafood establishment - encourages potential patrons to partake of fresh Dutch herring. How so? With a line of smiling, grinning fish in an airport security line for an x-ray, on their way to plates in New York, wearing little I Love New York shirts. It is almost as every herring is a suicidal little thing. And don't get me wrong, I love herring - it's the reason I will never, ever, ever be fully vegetarian. But this display is a little ... much.
I have not seen ads like this before as much. Just more...mundane, less noticeable ads.
(OK, I sound sanctimonious and pretentious, yes. Due to absurdly obvious and common graffiti, posting a picture of said advertisement would involve multiple modesty failures.)
* The cheap deli coffee has become slightly stronger. The Midwest has converted me into quite the coffee drinker over the past two years; the drink actually has a separate line when I'm doing my budgeting. Back here, I drink a mix of fancy coffee as a treat to myself (my post-Shabbat snack was an Italian cappuccino and a pastry) and deli coffee to keep me going. Any good New Yorker will know what I am describing: the cheap cup-o'-joe that every bodega, deli, and grocery in the region can sell you for a delightfully low price, providing caffeine if not, necessarily, a quality beverage experience.
It's strengthened a bit. Of the seven cups I've gotten in the past few days (don't judge, now), six have been significantly stronger than my last visit (December 2011, which was largely sustained courtesy of $1 medium coffees) or the visit before (Thanksgiving, including a 6am airport sprawl courtesy of a 24-hour bodega's percolator).
I wonder what the reason for the stronger coffee is. Clients who have spent too long up, admiring the sunset over dinner? Longer hours for worse pay (more likely)? Secret changes in instant coffee made by the manufacturer?
* The public transport system has become less class-diverse. This change has probably been happening for several years - since well before I moved to Chicago in September 2010 - but it has been most noticeable on this visit and the last visit.
The dynamic before was a little bit more diverse: one would see thousand-dollar handbags brushing against student backpacks, jostling little grandmas with Chinese newspapers in the line of vision of young men in construction workers' garb, over whose shoulders I would peer to check which transfer would be quickest.
Is it just me, or are there fewer suits and ladies of leisure on the subway now? I went to visit a friend on the Upper East Side - New York's chichi quarter - on Thursday afternoon, and not many people got off at 86th Street. I saw fewer telltale signs of wealth on the subway.
One would be tempted to blame the economic crisis for this, but I saw quite a number of those markers as soon as I emerged onto Lexington Avenue. The handbags, the sunglasses, the obscenely expensive shampoo advertisements.
I would have thought that the crisis would have inspired a certain frugality in New Yorkers - I would see more Prada on the 6 - but maybe there is a recovery. Or a retreat. On verra.
(It should be noted for those of you unfamiliar that New York has the highest Gini index in the country. So much for Democratic Party politics, it is a limousine liberalism that one finds here.)