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 So seemingly quaint and outdated, yet I am fascinated by the thinking and history behind what often appears to be arbitrary or whimsical rules of conduct.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