Confessions of an urban transplant—or, conflicts in perceptual frameworks
A few years ago I was riding the bus home from work and my cell phone rang. I looked at the screen and saw that it was a call from a relative I don’t hear from often. I declined the call, because I always feel self-conscious having a personal conversation in a place like the bus where total strangers can overhear (whether they want to or not). And often the bus environment is just loud enough that I can’t understand everything the other person is saying and they keep asking me to repeat myself because the background noise plus my aforementioned self-consciousness means they can’t hear me.
Once I was home, I called them back, leading with an explanation that I was sorry I hadn’t answered, but was afraid the bus was too noisy to have a conversation. The relative reacted with shock.
“Why are you riding the bus? What happened to your car? Were you in an accident? Is everyone all right?”
I explained that I have always used a combination of bus and walking to get to work.
“But why? You have a car!”
So I explained my reasons which are: 1) Not driving myself to the office every day means less wear-and-tear on the car; 2) Dealing with traffic can be stressful, and particularly after a stressful day at work it’s nice to let the bus driver deal with the traffic; 3) it is a whole lot cheaper to take the bus than to pay for downtown parking.
“Why can’t you just park your car at work?”
Then I had to explain that I could park my car in the garage under the office building if I wanted… but it isn’t cheap.
“Why are you working for someone who charges you to park at work?”
I proceeded to explain that, for one, my employer doesn’t own the building—they only rent a few floors of it. Two, if I do choose to park there monthly, my employer pays a portion of the cost, but not the whole thing, and the remainder is still quite a bit more than a bus pass. Three, there is no free parking in the downtown portions of most cities, because real estate is too valuable to have parking lot-sized portions of it not being used to generate income. Therefore, no matter who I worked for in Seattle, I’d be paying for parking.
“How expensive is it to park there?”
I told her how much (at that time) my portion of the cost would be each month to park in the building where I worked.
She whistled loudly. “That’s more than my mortgage payment! And that’s just to park your car for a month? How can that be?”
I wasn’t sure how she would react if I told her that the cost to park the car in that downtown garage for a month was less than one-tenth of the rent I was paying at that time for a two-bedroom apartment in another neighborhood. So this was when I said, “Things are more expensive in the city. But we shouldn’t be talking about my commute. You called me for a reason. What’s up?”
This is hardly the first time I have had a variant of that exact conversation with a relative or former classmate or old friend who still lives in one of the small towns or suburbs where various parts of my childhood occurred.
On a couple of occasions the conversation has included a long digression about how awful it must be to ride the bus, since the bus must be full of drug addicts and homeless people and the mentally ill and so on. When I say pleasant experiences on the bus far outweigh unpleasant ones they clearly have difficulty believing me.
And with some of the relatives/former classmates/old friends, if I explained how many unpleasant bus experiences (particularly in the first decade or so I was taking the bus) were because some not-homeless, not-mentally-ill, not-drugged-out guy suddenly suspected I was a faggot and deciding he needs to tell me how much he loathes my kind… well, that would have kicked off an entirely different kind of bewildered and awkward conversation.
The questions about buses and parking are relatively benign examples of a phenomenon that Foz Meadows very succinctly called an onion argument:
“When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail.”
They illustrate a bigger problem. The frames of reference between rightwing folks and others is so disjoint that it’s really no surprise that we seem to be constantly talking past each other.