A polite "hello" from South Beach

So I'm in Miami for a few days at my buddy D's. He's got a place in South Beach. Amazing. I mean, the weather--it's, like, in the low eighties. In Boston it's in the thirties with blizzard conditions. I'm sitting here in nothing but shorts, flip-flops, and my RayBans. The day's about an hour and a half longer here than up North, too. Light and warmth. Can't beat 'em.

Just before I left Boston last Thursday, I was walking down Washington Street on my way to Downtown Crossing. It was not yet five o'clock, but already dark, and a bitter wind was a-blowing. Some street vendors were packing up, and one came darting across the street with a pushcart, right across my path. For a split second, we were at an impasse, and the mutual loathing was palpable. Since the sidewalk belonged to both of us equally, there was no earthly reason either of us should yield and let the other pass, but both of us obviously felt the other should. We could have remained there forever, like in the Dr. Seuss story about the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax who found themselves in a similar predicament, and both refused to budge--forever. All I had to do was show symbolic submission by stepping to my right ever so slightly, and he pushed ahead triumphantly. How many times a day does this happen?

Of course, these kinds of petty incidents happen all the time, every day in Boston, especially this time of year. Immediately afterwards I had this flash of busting some jujitsu move on that cunt, and making him beg for mercy before letting him get on his way again. You know, that's what being in this milieu does to you. And all it would take to sidestep that rage that flares up is just a minimum of courtesy.

I'm not suggesting, by any means, that my move with this street vendor was courteous. I moved because I wanted to avoid a rage-event, pure and simple. I could also sort of understand his perspective, petty and short-sighted as it was. He plowed ahead mostly because he works on the street, and like truck drivers and cabbies, they think that means the streets belong to them. They're the pros, the rest of us are merely amateurs. Pathetic, yes, but that's what in their view entitles and enables them to behave so badly. The street vendor's look said, "I deal with you amateur pedestrians all day! I'm the damned expert and I'm sick and tired of it! Now get the hell out of my way!"

The larger problem in this city is the air of entitlement and exceptionalism you find everywhere. Bostonians aren't gracious on the whole, because status so dictates social interaction here. Everybody is clawing to get to the top of the heap in every little interaction on the street. This street is more mine than yours! My appointment is more important than yours is! I'm more American than you are! And so on, ad nauseam. I'm exempt from that red light! When I behave obnoxiously, it's not obnoxious like it is when you do! I mean, that's human nature, but in Boston it seems to be taken to its social-Darwinian extreme.

In another context I was doing some research on rudeness, and came upon the rudeness, interrupted blog. I have to hand it to Laurie Puhn, the proprietress of the blog, for trying to increase awareness of the epidemic of rudeness in society, though it is probably just a natural function of the social-political-economic milieu we live in. On the one hand, it is the lowest common denominator thing at work. But rudeness also subverts social hierarchy. In a monarchy, say, with an aristocracy, or any highly hierarchized organization (like the Church or your typical multinational corporation), you are compelled by many constraints to show deference to your social betters. In a strictly hierarchized or "vertical" society (or organization) the force of gravity is at work: boss shits on subordinate, who in turn shits on his subordinates, who shits on his, and so on down the corporate, clerical, or what-have-you ladder. But in even a superficially democratic society, the shit's just flying, and when it hits the fan, it spatters anyone and everyone in the room. In the war of all against all, don't forget your goggles and shit-guards.

But it's not insignificant that the democratic thing is becoming more and more meta. I think part of the frustration that results in so much rudeness amongst strangers is, in fact, due to the ever-increasing transparency of the charade of democracy in an ever-more rigidly hierarchical society (and Boston is about as rigidly hierarchical as it gets). There has been a massive redistribution of wealth over the past quarter century that has picked up speed over the last half-decade. We live in a more stratified society now than we did at mid-century, and, as follows, in a more strictly hierarchized one most of the day. When we are at the office, we have to stifle our urge to bitch-slap the supervisor or tell the boss what a butthead he is. So when we get out in the unconstrained "free-market-democratic" world, anything goes, let 'er rip!

The funny thing about rudeness, as I've said elsewhere, is that everyone seems to think it's everybody else being rude. This is more of our silly exceptionalism. Reading the comments on the "rudeness, interrupted" blog reminded me of the megachurch mentality. It's them, not us. We're the beacon of righteousness and courtesy. They are evil, and rude, to boot! I mean, all the comments were along the lines of (actual comment): "Yesterday alone - a cab driver, a waitress, and my aging mother (!) all were rude to me. I try breathing a lot, and a little silent compassion - but it takes patience and true grace under pressure to remember to do that all the time." They were probably rude to you because you were breathing in that annoying manner all the time, with that look off righteous forbearance on your puss. Know what I'm sayin'?

I used to know this kid. He was totally annoying. Objectively speaking. I mean, way outside the norm when it came to just being annoying. I had nothing against him, personally, but I was a foreman at a New Hampshire orchard where he was a seasonal employee, and he was on my crew, so I had time to observe him, fairly dispassionately, and I was like, damn, he's annoying, even when I wasn't personally all that annoyed by him. I think you can tell without necessarily being effected. Just like you can see that the sky is blue without bias. The problem is when it is a judgment and not just an observation, and in human relations that's a problem of ego. There is truth even in subjectivity, though.

Anyway, he was always preening and picking at things. And always eating with his fingers and licking and sucking on them. His behavior and physiognomy were in perfect synch: He had wide-set, somewhat suspicious eyes and a long, sharp, foraging nose to match his thin, spindly form and impossibly long, thin, disturbingly flexible fingers. It was not Seckel Syndrome, in which case he could be forgiven. In truth it was impossible to tell whether his birdlike behavior was turning him into a bird, or whether his birdlike appearance and people's implicit expectation that he act like a bird was conditioning his behavior.

Anyway, the point here is, he fancied himself a very spiritual person, and he was always doodling little shivas doing back-flips. He had a whole arsenal of magical beads and crystals. He liked to boast about his travels in India, and once told me a story about how he was made to take off his expensive hiking boots before he entered a temple there. He tried to hide the boots under a shirt off in some corner somewhere, but when he came out someone had stolen them. He assumed it was an Indian, firstly, which revealed something of his character, and he also assumed that it was a problem of the thief's karma, not his own. He saw the effect clearly enough, but could not acknowledge a cause, where it implicated him. But they were his shoes. Clearly he was implicated, karmically speaking.

That's just how people are with rudeness. It is a huge cause-and-effect. Everybody--everybody--is rude sometimes. Because rudeness is a social disease. It's a meme. It passes from person to person. It cannot survive and propagate in isolation, but in the Petri dish of the city it spreads like wildfire through the entire organism. No one is exempt.

If someone rages-out on you, unless you are Jesus Christ or Buddha himself, you're going to pass it on, to someone, somewhere, somehow. You may do it all passive-aggressively, you may not do anything, in other words, but rudeness is not always a sin of commission. Often it's a sin of omission. Pointedly withholding courtesy is a very effective form of rudeness. The advantage of withholding it is that when people rude-out on you openly in response, you can wither and whinge and play the victim. Oh why is everyone but me so rude? If only people could be as polite and well-behaved as I always am, and more like me in general, what a wonderful world it would be!

So the first step in addressing the epidemic of rudeness is to get off your friggin high horse and own it. Welcome to the barnyard.

But back to South Beach! The reason I got to thinking about this in the first place was because the weather here is so fantastic, and people just seem more laid-back, more easy-going and friendly. Yes, there's attitude, but it's mostly harmless. It's mostly of the peacock variety that doesn't demand you necessarily insult someone to press the point. In fact, it's almost impossible to get too uptight when the weather is right. If it's too cold or too hot, that's when people start raging-out, seems like.


At 12/13/2005 8:17 PM, Anonymous Charlie said...

I think most rudeness in Boston stems from the fact that to most people it feels like it takes far too long to travel, whether it be by T or by car. That and the fact that none of us seem to be able to adapt to the fact that there are a lot of people here, and that we tend to get in each other's way a lot. At the end of a long day of work, when people are trying to get home, and they end up sitting at traffic light after traffic light, navigating through poorly designed intersections, dodging pedestrians and double parked cars, or packed in with their fellow commuters in a train or bus that's way behind schedule and going far too slow, courtesy goes out the window as people just want to get HOME. Basically, we all choose to live or work in the city, but we don't really like other people all that much.


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