I’ve got a friendly face. When I lived in New York City everyone thought I was from the Midwest or California, although I’d grown up only a half-hour away in the Jersey suburbs. It might be my smile. It’s huge and hangs across my face by default. Paired with a hello, it has opened doors my whole life. Until now.
On St. John, my smile hangs out alone, often mangled, as my mouth tries to form a proper greeting. Intellectually, I know if it’s morning a “Good morning” is appropriate, if it’s afternoon a “Good afternoon” is correct, and if it’s evening – this was a tricky one – I’ve learned a “Good night” is right. The problem I have is with the choice. I’ve never been good at making the right one. If I go in for a high five, I am inevitably met with a fist bump. If someone says “right”, I turn left. I always pick up the wrong water on the table. Its like my brain is a preteen menace playing practical jokes on my motor neurons. So I never get the greeting right.
When I finally realized “Good night” was a greeting and not a way to shoo me out of stores, I spent the whole night still saying “Good evening” like Count Dracula’s dim-witted sister. I watch in wonder as tourists, fresh off the ferry, naturally roll off “Good afternoon’s” while I’m still wishing everyone a “Good morning”. There’s also the long-term residents, striding into businesses with authoritative “Afternoon’s” as if they were born doing it. And then there’s me. The precious few times I’ve actually gotten the greeting right, I’m always answered with an unimpressed “Hi.”
The problem is, I so desperately want to make a good impression. I know I’ll never completely fit in. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll never be a true St. Johnian no matter how many years I live here, and I have enough respect for history and social injustice to understand my place as yet another white interloper. But I also want to respect local customs and make friends. Even the National Park advises using these greetings to win favor with lifelong St. Johnians on one of their informative plaques.
The fact that I avidly read these plaques is probably another reason I’ll never fit in. That, and the brightly colored sunhat permanently attached to my head. I’m not one of these wispy expats in a flowing sundress with golden skin, hair artfully mussed by salt spray. Nor am I the hearty sailor-type sucking down dark rum at the neighborhood bar. Or the dread-locked Rasta princess at one with the natural world. I’m persistently sweaty, my hair is a frizzy nest, and my clothing is Delaware outlet style. Add in a good dose of classic Jewish neurosis, and you get the picture.
My girlfriend tells me not to worry, to just be myself. And surprisingly, even through all my stutters and blunders, everyone I’ve met has been friendly and kind. Whether at the Social Security office, the grocery store, the laundromat, or WAPA, people have forgiven my fumbles and responded with warmth. So I’ll keep my ridiculous hat, I’ll keep punching palms, and I’ll keep smiling through my awkward greetings.
One day, just maybe I’ll get it right.