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Friday, June 24, 2011

Shortly Before Execution


I was once in a restaurant with a friend in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where a family of four was finishing their dinner. The two children were playing with food and every condiment on the table. Sugar packets had been opened and the contents were everywhere. Salt, pepper, uneaten rice, dirty utensils - all had become playthings. Food was everywhere and the floor (carpeted unfortunately) was covered in food debris. The parents made no effort whatsoever to stop the activity. There was a sense that these were children and that is what children do.

Where I grew up, that is what children do, shortly before execution.

This is the parents' fault, of course, and in many instances in the city, I have seen extraordinary examples of parents indulging children in grossly inappropriate behavior. No one says anything, lest they be perceived as child haters or interfering with other people's business.

I am intrigued by etiquette. So seemingly quaint and outdated, yet I am fascinated by the thinking and history behind what often appears to be arbitrary or whimsical rules of conduct. And in any world or society, particularly one so complex as where we are now, there is a huge appeal for doctrine, dogma and customs. Life so much easier with a rule book.

I expressed this interest in codes of behavior some years ago and was gifted a copy of Emily Post's Etiquette. I was surprised to see it was still published - the classic tome is now in its 17th edition.* A guide to every aspect of social behavior is covered, even including how to eat bing cherries. There are also sections on the etiquette of things that new technology has ushered in - cellphones, email, use of iPods, etc. and changing progressive mores - sex, dating, relationships, gay lifestyle.

There is also urban etiquette, covering things specific to the city life - crowded sidewalks and streets, subways, taxis, umbrellas, doormen, apartment life. Urban issues provide plenty of raw material for comedy writing - many of the minutiae of urban living which beg for some form of urban etiquette have been the subject of classic moments in TV shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Frasier et. al. Although some plot themes appeared to be farcical and hyper exaggerated, like Covenant of the Keys, they were in reality issues that are often very important in city life.

The New York City subway is heavily used and the perfect environment for observing every manner of manners. Some see it no differently than the great outdoors. It can be dog eat dog and every man for himself. Others try to maintain a sense of decorum, following rules of urban etiquette.

The photo was taken on the D train to Coney Island for the Mermaid Parade. As I approached my destination, my fellow riders appeared to become more casual - one had a cigarette and the other had his feet up on a pole. Where I'm from, there's no problem with that, shortly before execution :)

*Emily Post died in New York City in 1960. The Emily Post institute still survives and is headed by Peggy Post, Emily Post's great-granddaughter-in-law.
Related Posts: Follow the Crowd, Teleportation, Aspiring Rebel, Random Acts of Consideration, Twinship, The Curse of Trade, Just Don't Stick, Flailing and Hailing, Covenant of the Keys, Sardines, Get a Room, World of Gray, No Salga Afuera, PDA, The Subway

15 comments:

Peter Pan said...

What a bad couple !
Thank u by Peter Pan

Yogesh Naik said...

Very true... There is no sense or sensitivity left in the humans now...

Anonymous said...

Oh, I hear you! GREAT post.

Luis Gomez said...

Excellent Brian! I am so with you.

ragtimemarkbirnbaum said...

On the Money!
Love Old School Values-

Thx

Mary P said...

This is what we raised.

time traveler said...

The parents of these children you mentioned should themselves learn consideration for others-then teach their children..Great post Brian-I'll bet many felt like you did..Have a great weekend..

Anonymous said...

Subways are for underdogs. Cars are for humans.

Chicken Underwear said...

I am so glad I was not on that train. I mighta had to perform the execution on that dirt-bag for smoking.

Thérèse said...

Emily Post's Etiquette should be a great read for the summer... Is there anything about people spitting out their car window?? No subway here but a lot of cars... ;-)))

Rigel said...

So true. Those people look like they think they own the place.

mike fontana said...

Etiquette is pretty relative. When it exists just for the sake of existing, It's a bit of fluff covering antiquated and often arbitrary ideas. I prefur logistical etiquette.
If a train car isn't crowded, there are empty seats, no one is on their feet and no one's passing through, I see no offence in the use of a lower portion of an impervious stainless steel pole as a foot rest. I'm sure that I would feel differently if his feet were as high up on the pole as people would handle but, they don't appear to be in this shot. The guy with the cigarette's a different case. He knows it's illegal. He know that it will offend and that's part of why he's doing it but, look at this pudgy youth. He doesn't look too hard core. I'm sure that, one way or, another, if I asked him to put it out he would have.

Once upon a time people took a risk just going anywhere by subway in this city. You could get killed in any part of town, good or bad, it didn't matter. The city was riddled with violent crime and people were affraid to the point of parallysis. If you had a problem with something on the subway, you might keep it to yourself rather than risk your life over something as stupid as a cigarette. Many of us were conditioned in this way and can no more speak up than we can put our elbows on the dinner table.

The city isn't like that any more. There are and, always will be ill-mannered people. I'm sure that more often than I'm aware, many think me among them. Believe it or not the ill-mannered may be in the majority, meaning: they are ordiary people able to consider your point when presented with it and aquiesse to reason. That's just good manners.

Jack said...

If I say anything, I will be branded old and stodgy, which might be accurate. My mother used to say, If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

Mark Righter said...

Just found your blog. As is the case with this posting - fabulous photo, insightful commentary.
Where do you get the time?

Brian Dubé said...

Mark,
I just fell asleep at my desk. I don't really have the time and to some extent I have sacrificed my life.