Saturday, January 20, 2001

Sighs Matter

What are manners? Well, OK, who really cares? I know you're right! I guess I want to talk about how we treat one another in public. You know: how we treat strangers.

I think of it as all being very simple. It's about boundaries. I am not talking about some psychobabble concept that addresses how I spend money or drink booze or screw strangers! I'm talking about physical boundaries. You know the boundaries: You can walk to the edge of the cliff, but when you go one more step you plunge to your death! Plain old physical boundaries like fences and walls. I guess the basest level of manners is the physical boundary. I do not make physical contact with you, and if I do, I apologize, and vice-versa. This seems so simple.

Life in an urban area is rife with unwanted physical contact between strangers. Whether you ride the subway, shop in a supermarket, boutique or mall, walk the streets, drive through the centre of town, or live in an apartment building, you constantly come into contact with strangers.

In our self-centred culture, consideration for others has moved from being quaint and old-fashioned to being reflective of weakness or passive.

Not really wanting to admit my age, I betray that secret by offering an observation about a nightclub phenomena of my youth: In mid-seventies Boston, I had the good fortune to be, though not legally old enough to drink, regularly admitted to the nightclub that was our city's centre of the Glam scene. This was not a bar for the weak of heart! This scene was populated by Boston's demi-monde of bisexual-chic, homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, drug-addled Southie thugs, local trade, and rock-star wannabes all dressed in tight clothes and platform shoes. The scene was about being seen, and dressing up for the party.

As the years passed, the Glam scene spawned the Punk scene; though it wasn't called "punk," per se. It wasn't terribly violent at the beginning, more of a fashion and music trend. Platform shoes, long hair and fishnet stockings gave way to shorn heads, surplus military attire, and army boots. Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side," David Bowie's "Rebel, Rebel," T.Rex, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, et al., were replaced with Sex Pistols, Dictators, Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Voidoids, et al. The venues changed, and more often than not, DJs were replaced by live performances.

Then it happened! Frat boys and suburbanites appeared on the scene and IT was invented: slam-dancing! This must be the sorriest excuse for social interaction ever spawned in Western civilization. People were not really dancing; they were slamming against one another, and sin of all sins, touching each other's clothes! Today's hybrid, the Mosh Pit, has taken this form of entertainment to an extreme, with concerts requiring medical staff nearby just to assist those who have met their neighbours in this special way!

Now, I don't really give a shit if other people want to beat the shit out of each other; and, I guess the advent of the mosh pit provides those losers with a segregated space to pummel one another. My point is that the advent of slam-dancing and, later, the mosh pit, coincides with a breakdown of a simple social tool that has kept neighbours from destroying each other: manners!

I am NOT talking etiquette here. I don't think it would ever matter if everyone lost the ability to set the table properly, or ask a father for his daughter's hand in marriage, or RSVP a social event. I'm talking manners: the use of phrases like "excuse me," "please" and "thank you"!

What was my point, again? Oh, yeah! Those of us in urban settings live in a crowded environment filled with strangers with whom we must share subway cars, roads, stores, hallways, waiting areas, and other public places. As our population expands, all of these places have become more crowded. Longer lines, cramped buses, busier streets!

I have found that manners are a great help in these close quarters. Saying `excuse me' opens spaces I thought could never be penetrated! Nothing irritates me more, though, than hearing someone let out a big exaggerated sigh when a fellow citizen makes a blunder that results in discomfort or delayed service. It's so childish to let out a big sigh, especially if it is accompanied with a click of the tongue, because we do not like what is happening.

Unfortunately for me, the alternative to letting out a big sigh has often been to grab the offending person and shake them while screaming at the top of my lungs that they are stupid. I recommend AGAINST this method of communicating frustration (especially in banks, department stores and subway cars as there are often plenty of witnesses). Hmmm, maybe letting out a sigh would be better.

One rude trend over the past decade is the use of a backpack in place of a purse or briefcase. Now, the backpack is a brilliant invention: it allows a person to carry a lot of stuff in a comfortable manner over a long distance, while keeping the hands free for balance and more complicated moves associated with locomotion. The backpack was invented for people making journeys that include a certain amount of hiking, mountaineering, fording, and generally rugged activity. It is a brilliant device for these activities! I do not believe it is an effective tool for adults to carry Clinique products from home to office to restaurant to bar to home again.

When you carry a briefcase or purse, it is clear that it is taking up space either dangling from your hand or slung over your shoulder. This addition to your person is clear and learning how to accommodate it in a public place is relatively simple: hold it closer to your body to minimize the impact the object is having on those around you. Humans are remarkably adept at keeping their purses and briefcases, whether in their hand or on their shoulder, from intruding into the space required by others on a crowded street, elevator, or other public space. The presence of these accessories is obvious because they are generally in our line of vision. It is easy to accommodate something you can see.

For all of its remarkable benefits, the backpack (or the knapsack, as it was called when I was a Boy Scout) has one problem: deception. When in use, a backpack is not in your line of vision, and, therefore, is impossible to accommodate.

A woman who is five feet tall and weighs a hundred pounds requires a certain small amount of space in a subway car. Even when she has in her possession an extra pair of pumps, bad lipstick, eye-liner, mascara, blush, appointment book, address book, feminine hygiene products, tissues, nail polish, writing implements, an Humberto Eco paperback, portable CD player with selection of CDs, hairbrush, condoms, mobile phone and beeper, all strategically arranged in a purse, she requires a remarkably small amount of space on the Red Line! Well, OK, a six-foot, two hundred pound man carrying those same items in the same manner, also requires a remarkably small amount of space, even standing on the Green Line! This person can easily manoeuvre during rush hour to accommodate other passengers trying to board and depart the cramped car.

Take the same person carrying the same essentials in a backpack and all hell breaks loose. This petite or hefty human being has now doubled their space requirements and, worse, every movement they make is an intrusion on the people around them because they are totally oblivious of the impact their luggage is having on their neighbours. Worse, when their idiotic choice of accessory gets caught on the face of an elderly man standing behind them, they simply apply more force to swing their synthetic appendage free of obstruction! Ouch!

Tell me you haven't seen this! I have far too much experience riding public transportation in Boston, New York, and London, to believe that you have not seen this! If you've not seen it, choose the London Tube for your first experience. This utter failure of public infrastructure to accommodate the human body without the addition of a backpack would be humorous if it wasn't so embarrassingly sad; with a backpack it is a comedy of errors that even Dante could not have imagined for his circles of Hell.

So, you never take public transportation and you think that your backpack does not have this same impact. I offer the following!

You take your car everywhere! This choice is, no doubt, rooted in your experience of how unpleasant people can be on public transportation. So, you open your car door, toss the backpack into the backseat and make your merry way from home to work/school to restaurant to bar to home again. Your backpack has no impact on your fellow man because it is safely ensconced in your private space!

This brings me to another issue in the breakdown of manners in our culture: double-parking.

What is it in the human mind that says: "Gee, there are no convenient parking spots near my dry cleaner, I'll just put on my flashers and leave the car here in a lane of traffic. I'll only be a minute"? This can be only one of two things: (1) a form of mental illness bordering on psychotic, or (2) bad manners.

The most remarkable display of this idiocy is that stretch of Beacon Street, in Boston, from Arlington Street to Charlesgate East. Here is a street that has been designed with FIVE lanes, and it is constantly jammed with traffic, because so many drivers have turned two of the three driving lanes into extra parking! Let's not even get into the discussion of why a person living in the Back Bay would own a car in the first place!

Why the cities of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have continued to allow residents to park on congested urban streets is beyond any sane reasoning. I guess that sanity has never been a criteria for the decisions made by New England municipalities. On the other hand, the Town of Brookline very successfully discourages cars with their ban on overnight parking. The block in Manhattan where my wife and I have an apartment, allows no parking at all ever. I am loath to even pull over to unload luggage or bundles or people, lest I be fined (are you ready for this?) $200 and TWO POINTS on my insurance. Our street in New York never suffers from double-parking!

A brilliant solution! The neighbourhood in London where we have an apartment is in the "ring of steel" and allows no on-street parking anywhere. (I am typing this in London, which explains why the computer continues to `correct' all the words to the British spelling.) However, the reason for the ban on parking around our London apartment is rooted in twenty years of car bombs meant as a wake-up call to what is left of The Empire, as opposed to any logical urban planning. I digress.

The equivalent of verbally assaulting a double parker is the beeping of the horn. When I lean on the horn, I am letting everybody know that I think the offender is an idiot, much like grabbing the poor soul in the bank and screaming at him or her. There is a split second of self-righteous relief followed by embarrassment and possible arrest!

A total ban on parking certainly reduces the amount of double-parking! But, this is not the real problem. The issue here is that we are a culture of people who have lost all sense of our real place in the scheme of things! That simple social tool of manners that has helped human beings coexist for millennia has been abandoned in favour of getting what I want when I want it, which is NOW!

I am likely just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to being inconsiderate; but, I would never use a piece of camping equipment as a fashion accessory, and I don't double-park. I have decided, however, to stay out of prison by no longer throttling your pretty little neck when you whack me with your backpack and I promise I will not slam into your driver-side door when you double park. I will close my eyes and let out a sigh. Gee, that feels better already! I guess it's true what the girls say: Sighs Matter!