Tag Archives: manners

Once, twice, three times a New Yorker

New York and its population come with a certain reputation for fieriness. To be fair, some of that is deserved. Hell, I even perpetuate it myself, telling tales of being whacked in the arm by an old man and his umbrella, or being pursued around a supermarketgrocery store by a woman with rage management issues. But like the dog that’s had its teeth removed and replaced with foam molars, New York’s bark is much worse than its bite.

The problem is that it’s not as good a story to say that the people of New York are essentially fine upstanding citizens who love their mothers and do a lot of great work for charity. It’s so much easier to stick with the notion that all New Yorkers are impatient and crazy, and more-than-capable of dropkicking a cat more than 60 metresmeters at the end of a particularly bad day.

Thankfully, every so often (generally just when you think you’re at the end of your tether) New York musters all its strength to give you a demonstration of why it’s actually not that bad after all (and why you shouldn’t allow yourself to be affected by the stereotypes). And the last couple of days have given me some great examples to reassure me of New York’s loving intent.

1. The car crash victim
Walking to the opticians on Friday, the idyll of a bracing stroll through the streets of Chelsea was broken by the sickening crunch of metal on metal. Looking up, I watched as two cars pulled into the side street to survey the damage caused by an accidental low-speed crash. This being New York, I readied myself for screaming and shouting as the ‘wronged man’ stepped out of his car to survey the damage. With swearing expected at the minimum, and full on flying fists as a distinct possibility, surrounding pedestrians waited for the theatreer to begin.

Instead the driver looked at the minor dent on the bumper of his car, smiled understandingly at the quivering wreck of a man sitting in the car behind, and waved him on his way. New York was robbed of another drama, and Friday evening went on undisturbed.

2. The chorus line
A couple of blocks down the road, I looked up to see a crazy young(ish) woman around fifty meters away, walking towards me ranting at the top of her voice. Here we go again, I thought – I’m about to be verbally abused by a mad woman who hasn’t been seen in the same postcodezipcode as ‘sanity’ since 1987. Denied the opportunity to cross the road by fast-moving oncoming traffic, I readied myself to put my head down and hope for the best.

Then two small children skipped out from behind the woman, and I quickly realised that, far from being crazy, the three of them were actually giving a full on walking Broadway version of one of the songs from Annie. It was like seeing a female Von Trapp trio traipsing through the cold city streets, content in each other’s company and happy to fend off the cold without a care for what anyone else thought. Damn them for their cheeriness, I thought, before quickly self-flagellating myself for my grumpy New York attitude.

3. The patisserie lady
Last night I went into a high-end grocery store to pick up a dessert for a dinner party we’d been invited to. The queueline snaked past the patisserie counter, making it difficult to tell a pecan pie from an apple tart given the vast array of coats, scarves and bags obscuring the view. My plaintive mumblings of ‘excuse me’ were ignored by every single member of the line, with each one clearly fearful that I was using my desire to buy pastry-based products as some sneaky way of cutting infront of them.

Just as I was giving up hope, a lovely looking old lady looked at me, and backed away to allow me room to see what delights were on offer. She seemed to smile as she did so, a knowing glance between us regarding the sad state of affairs that is modern manners these days. As I started to look into the cabinet, I took a second to remember that New York is all too willing to show you its softer side, if you just give it a chance.

Then the crotchety old bag stuck her head right in my face and shouted at me to back off and not push infront of her, before ranting mercilessly about the ‘youth of today’.

Ah New York, it never lets you down.

Manners maketh man

They – whoever they may be – say that if you want to find a gentleman, you should head to England. With his impeccable deportment, chivalrous commitment and polite manners, the Englishman is apparently the ultimate charming and debonair male.

In truth, of course, for every Cary Grant (try to claim him if you want my American friends, but we Brits all know him as Archie Leach from Bristol), there’s an ASBO-toting Joey Barton-esque knuckle-grazing idiot for whom being charming means offering his girlfriend a sip of his pint of Stella.

The reality is that – in New York at least – whether it’s holding doors open, offering up seats on the bus or pulling out chairs, most American men seem to have an unerring commitment to etiquette. Of course, I’ve not been introduced to the more lairy members of Alpha Tau Omega (and I’m not planning on inviting them round for a – erm – ‘kegger’ just yet), but it seems to me that Americans are just as polite as their English counterparts.

I just wish that I could say as much for most American women.

Whenever I attempt to get off a subway train and am impeded by an impatient commuter desperate to grab an empty seat, it’s never a bloke who nearly knocks me off my feet rather than waiting for passengers to get off first. When somebody has a heavy steel door held open for them, but fails to look back to make sure that they’re not slamming the door in my (now slightly flattened) face, it tends not to be a guy. And invariably when I’ve been waiting ten minutes to hail a cab in the rain, and have the only vacant taxi in Manhattan stolen from me by somebody who only turned up thirty seconds previously, it’s not a man who sneers as he jumps into the car and speeds off. With the cab powering through an adjacent puddle as it disappears into the distance.

Maybe I’ve just been unlucky? Maybe New York women are taking revenge for years of unacceptable behaviour from Wall Street oafs? Or maybe the females of the city are on a collective mission to send me scuttling back to the UK with the tail between my legs?

Thankfully The Special One hasn’t succumbed to this dastardly plot yet. Although if I put my shoes on the newly-made bed one more time, my luck might start to run out.

Anyway, what do I know about etiquette? After all, I’m the man who seized upon an empty seat on the packed train last night, beating a slowly approaching man to the restful prize. Clearly, the fact that he had dark glasses and a white stick didn’t help him get there any quicker.

Despite immediately and apologetically leaping to my feet to offer him the seat, the man refused to sit down and instead stood for fifteen minutes until another seat became available. While all the rest of the carriage stared at me with the look of contempt specifically reserved for people who would deny a partially-sighted men the seat he so richly deserves.

Perhaps I’m just embracing my (New York) feminine side?

A new kind of justice

It’s remarkable how being ‘out of water’ makes you much more sensitive to people’s attitudes and behaviours, regardless of where you are in the world. When I’m in the UK, for example, I’m intensely aware of the sullen questioning of waiters or waitresses who are not so wholly dependent on tips to ensure that they can eat at the end of the week. I’m currently in the south of France, and even though there’s a ban on smoking in public places as there is in Britain or New York, it’s noticeable how much more committed people still are to their ‘death sticks’.

Thankfully, the world is an endlessly diverse place, and we should be eternally grateful for that.

But sometimes – just sometimes – I wish that there were universally held social mores that people adhered to regardless or country of origin, class, race, sexuality or religion.

Travelling back to New York from London this week, The Special One and I had a glass of wine in Terminal 4 (OK, I had a glass of wine, and she had a glass of English lemonade, which she appears to be endlessly enamoured with) before making our weary way to the gate to be prodded and poked into our seats like the rest of the onboard cattle. Even though the flight was relatively empty, most of the seats around the gate were full of sombre passengers preparing themselves for the eight hours of sitting in three-and-a-half inches of legroom eating rapidly chilled-then-furnace blasted food.

Having already flown down to London from Manchester, and laden down with heavy bags, neither of us were particularly in the mood for sitting on the floor or – worse still – standing. Fortunately there were two spare seats next to a pleasant-enough looking couple, with nothing more than an Arran jumpersweater and a bag or two occupying the seats. A man was sat adjacent to the vacant seats, studiously working on his laptop.

Seeing the chance to take the weight off my legs, I approached the man and asked to sit down, and he cordially removed the sweater from one of the chairs. When I apologetically made it clear that there were two of us and that we needed both seats, things started to go downhill rapidly.

The man, who appeared to be German but seemed to talk with a New York accent, simply refused to move his things, firmly stating “I’m not putting my stuff on the floor”, smirking casually as he said it. He even repeated it after my ears refused to believe what they had heard.

At that point, the British and New York sides to my personality were immediately put into intense conflict. The British part of me instantly apologised for the inconvenience of the man being asked to lift up his inanimate and non-precious possessions to place them on the carpeted floor. But within milliseconds, my inner indignated New Yorker reasserted control and insisted that he clear the chair so that The Special One and I could sit down.

Again he refused. This time with more vigour.

By this point I was irate (though utterly calm), and the presence of 150 or so other travellers wasn’t going to prevent me from making myself heard. Clearly nothing I could say was going to make him give up the spare seat, but that didn’t mean that I was going to let him get away with such behaviour without a mild-but-obvious rebuke.

In the ensuing diatribe, it is possible that I made it clear – to him, and to the watching audience – that he was an obnoxious man with little or no moral fibreer. And asked him how he managed to be so self-involved that a couple of bags were more important than a couple of living breathing human beings.

Again he smirked, held his ground, and we walked off to two more seats that had been vacated a few yards away. As I turned to give him my deadliest death stare (a stare that has been known to cause the onset of rigor mortis in perfectly healthy adults), he laughed to his humiliated partner.

This was too much for even my inner eccentric English gentleman, and I heard myself call him out for his manners again, telling him to stop laughing as his attitude was simply pathetic. Still no response though, and the man buried himself in both his laptop and his over-arching sense of self-congratulation as The Special One and I sat down and vented privately.

What goes around comes around though. Our bags were pretty much the last ones to arrive off the luggage carousel as the JFK terminal shut down for the night. And the last sight we saw, as we wandered off to get a taxi back to Brooklyn, was Mr Obnoxious and his wife consulting with British Airways staff on what to do about their suitcases which tragically appeared to have gone missing in transit.

And that, my friends, is karma.