True urban legends

This American Life recently had a show about urban legends that might be true. The second segment, about things foreigners believe about America, was particularly poignant. It talked about the things that foreigners are told happen in America, that they can’t actually believe are true.

Partly the problem is the media. My experience is that many people in Europe believe that America is the way they see it in movies and TV shows–at least as far as crime and violence are concerned.

Violent crime does happen, of course. In Cambridge MA, there was a shooting at a store not too far from our house one night. We were leaving a restaurant. We didn’t hear or see the crime, but immediately afterwards there was a police presence like a scene from The Blues Brothers: half a dozen squad cars, cops on mountain bikes combing the park, and even a police helicopter with a searchlight.

However, it’s also the case that when my family first visited us there, the neighborhood kids were playing on the street, running in and out of houses whose doors were unlocked. That’s the other side of the story, the white picket fences and little Jimmy playing baseball in the park, and people seem less willing to believe that part.

There were some things I believed were myths. One was cheerleaders. I’d seen the depictions of cheerleaders in everything from “Heathers” to TV sitcoms, and I’d assumed that it was a ridiculous caricature like something out of “Little Britain”. Then on my emigration flight, I found myself sat in the middle of a group of cheerleaders who were returning from a trip to Europe. They were very excited to be going home, noisy throughout the flight, and cheered the plane down to a landing.

Another thing I assumed was artistic exaggeration was steam coming out of manholes in the middle of the street. You’ve seen it in any number of movies: it’s a hot day in the city, people are wiping the sweat off their brows, and the camera cuts to a steaming manhole cover. Well, that happens too–in places like Cambridge, there are old power stations which pump their “waste” steam to nearby businesses to use for heating. When it’s hot and the steam isn’t used, valves blow off the excess through vent holes.