It was March, 1984 and I was 22 years old. I was dressed in the only suit I owned and had taken the bus to downtown from the tiny one-bedroom apartment I had rented in Near North Dallas (I’m sure it has a snappier name now). I was lost — and looked it. I was holding a map.
I couldn’t find the Magnolia Building where I would work on the 11th floor. The streets were alive with commuters. It was 7:30 in the morning and I needed to be at work at 8. It was to be my first day on the job at Mercantile National Bank.
On a street corner, I held out my opened map and asked a man as he rushed by to help; he wouldn’t even look at me and kept walking.
I must have had the most incredulous expression on my face, because a woman stopped and patted my arm. “Honey? Don’t worry about it,” she said. “He thought you were selling something.” Then she was gone.
As I look back I see that I was wearing my Country Face. It was the only face I had. It’s the wide-open expression of someone who doesn’t know where they are and isn’t sure of themselves. I wouldn’t know about — or develop — City Face for another few months.
City Face / Country Face
Anyone who lives in a major urban area learns to affect City Face. It’s a combination of Don’t Mess With Me and disinterestedness. Its purpose is to seal you away from the Hoards of Strangers as you get to your destination.
In the months before I transitioned from Country Face to City Face, I was like a plastic duck in an arcade booth people pay money to shoot at.
“Can you help me out? I’m embarrassed to ask but… I need gas money.” Pow.
“I lost my paycheck! And I really need $5 for the bus.” Pow-pow.
“My friend and I need help with fill-in-the-blank. I’ll walk on one side, and he’ll walk on your other side and then…”
Ka-boom. Right between the eyes.
Closely allied with City Face is moving with intention. Walk like you know where you’re going (even if you don’t.) Move with assurance. It makes a difference.
(FYI — in New York City, walk quickly, otherwise you will be squashed in the Moving Machine of humanity. Do not Dawdle nor Saunter nor Amble nor Lollygag. Get a move on. New Yorkers have no compunction about saying to strangers — get out of the way.)
I became conscious (again) of City Face / Country Face when I was in Bangkok for the first time in 2011. I had moved away from the Big City and had been in my small town for 17 years. I had lost my City Face. I was confronted by every swindler and con-artist within a mile. (In my defense… Bangkok is a city of people looking to take advantage. Even City Face doesn’t insulate you there in the way it can in other major cities.)
In Medellin, Colombia I put on my City Face when I was in the older parts of town where the crowds were thick and people were selling something. I would shake my head No and if they persisted, put my hand up. Never look them in the eye; keep walking. It really does work.
For someone like me who was raised in the South — where good manners are vital parts of the culture — it’s not easy to treat strangers coldly. But there really are differences between strangers — people you might meet that you don’t know — versus the Masses who want something from you.
Whenever Marty and I were in the central plaza of Quito, Ecuador a Spanish man accosted us to become our English-speaking guide. He was relentless, and tried it every time we were there. Our encounters with him were the only time we raised our voices when saying No. It was uncomfortable, but necessary.
Planning to travel? Don’t let this post get in your way. Enjoy yourself. But when you’re in huge crowds or get on public transportation, put on your City Face. It’s not foolproof — nothing is — but it will make things immensely easier when you’re in new and strange surroundings.