12/7/11

Being a Stand-Up Guy (and Why it Can Be Harder to Be a Stand-up Gal)

For me, one of the benefits of being a freelancer is not having to take mass transit during rush hour. Nevertheless, last week I found myself on the 79th Street crosstown bus at 5:30 p.m., which is a bit like being stuffed inside a can of sardines—live, irritated, smelly sardines. There was the usual friction between the people standing toward the back hoarding their personal space and the people trying to get on who were calling out, “Move back, people!” And, of course, there was the continuous vying for seats.

I happened to be sitting in a side seat, near the front, under the sign that reads: “Won’t you please give this seat to the elderly or disabled?” At Fifth Avenue, an older man got on. He looked as if he was in his early 70s, though he did not seem in any way infirm or unsteady on his feet. After struggling for a moment with the selfish desire for my own comfort, I offered him my seat.

The man waved me off with a stiff “no thanks.” I looked up at him. He stood right over me; there was no place else to go on the packed bus. I could see he was annoyed. “I’m not that old yet, I hope,” he muttered at me in a sarcastic tone. That was when I understood that I had, unwittingly, emasculated him. That, according to his old-school mentality, he’s supposed to get up for me, not the other way around. Still, I wondered, how could anyone misinterpret such a simple common courtesy?

Then I thought back to the time a few years ago when someone gave me his seat on the subway, winked and said, “You should not be on your feet in your condition.” I realized with horror he had thought I was pregnant! I did not enjoy getting that seat (and I never wore that dress ever again).

The problem with offering up your seat, which we all know is the right thing to do, is that the etiquette is not always black and white. You could, of course, relinquish your seat for everyone, which at rush hour would mean you would never sit down at all. But most of us are tired enough at the end of a day that we can’t pass up an empty seat. And unless someone unmistakably “seat-needy” gets on—someone elderly; someone with a cane, a cast or a brace; someone who is pregnant, blind or sick; or someone who is carrying bulky packages or a baby—we tend to think, “First come, first served.”

As sexist as it sounds, it would be simpler for everyone if strong young men were willing to offer up their seats more frequently. (It’s not that young men are any more capable of standing than young women are, but let’s face it: most young women these days are wearing heels.) On the other hand, I try not to judge every young man harshly for not doing this—it isn’t always easy to tell who has a physical problem. When I was in my early 30s, I had a herniated disk, and it wasn’t obvious to others how much pain I was in.

Maybe the seemingly oblivious guy playing games on his iPod does, in fact, have a bad knee. Maybe he’s got heel spurs. Maybe he’s an exhausted hospital intern who just worked a triple shift and saved the lives of three people with gunshot wounds. Okay, probably not. But you never know.

For those of us without hidden gunshot wounds, there are basically three ways to offer someone your seat:

1) Look inquiringly at the person. Shift as if you are about to get up, placing one hand on the back of your seat. Watch to see if he looks grateful/hungry for a seat. He will make a move toward you if he wants to accept. This is known as the “Edge of My Seat” method.

2) Vacate the seat before he figures out you are moving because of him. For all he knows, you are nearing your stop. (This method is not recommended on a very crowded bus, as someone else is likely to pounce on the seat before your chosen beneficiary can get to it.)

3) Ask: “Would you like my seat?” This is the “Direct Approach,” which, as I have shown, can sometimes backfire. But it’s by far the most civilized, so it’s worth the risk.

Macho 70-year-olds notwithstanding.

*Originally published in The West Side Spirit, November 16, 2011

12/1/11

That's My Queue

The other day, as I was in line at Pier 11 for the water taxi to Ikea, I started thinking about how much waiting in line we all do. Every day we wait in line at stores, stations, theaters, banks, post offices and bus stops. We wait in line to get seated at a restaurant, to buy a Metrocard, to get gas. I looked it up: the average person spends over an hour a day waiting in line—that’s two to three years in a lifetime. (If you’re a woman, probably at least one year of that waiting time is spent in line for the ladies’ room.)

Considering how commonplace line-standing is, it’s amazing how many New Yorkers I’ve come across who think, basically, that lines are for suckers. Once friend told me, “Oh, I never wait in lines. I jump the line any way I can. If there are 500 people in the line, you think I’m okay with being 501?” There are other pushy types who habitually barrel ahead of everyone with “just a quick question,” as though they are certain that everyone else standing in line has issues that take much longer to address and so naturally will not mind. Some people, I have heard, actually pay others to wait in line for them.

I guess if I was rich enough I might pay someone to stand in the DMV line for me (I certainly wouldn’t mind someone else posing for my driver’s license photo) but one thing seems clear: We’re a city of eight million people—it’s inevitable that we’ll need to queue up from time to time.  I myself am comforted by a well-run, orderly line. I don’t even like lines where you can choose between several stations, an environment that leads to jockeying for position. I am much happier with a simple, first-come, first-served line. I feel more relaxed knowing that no one, not even me, can cheat the system. Well-defined lines—and people willing to adhere to them—are a sign of civilization. Just think what would happen if no one was willing to “be a sucker” and stand in line. Imagine going to the movies or some other situation where hundreds of people just milled around outside in a big, stressful horde, and at a certain point they all rushed the door at the same time. (Actually, we don’t have to imagine that. All we have to do is go down to Penn Station and watch how New Yorkers behave when a train’s departure gate is announced. It’s chaos.)

Obviously there are many reasons for hating long lines–fatigue, physical discomfort, boredom, loss of time, the feeling of powerlessness (otherwise known as the Sheep Syndrome). I’ve talked to people who get annoyed by how close people stand to them in line or by how loudly their fellow line-standers talk on their cell phones. But one of people’s secret fears about having to stand in line, especially if they are by themselves, is the fear of getting trapped in conversation with someone with whom they’d rather not engage.

You don’t choose who to stand next to as you do at a party. If someone starts talking to you in line, you can’t excuse yourself and go get a drink. You are stuck there. Especially if you are the one who initiated the conversation, there is no graceful way to back up and say, “Sorry, now that I have exchanged a few words with you I can tell I really do not want to speak with you.” Engaging with a stranger in a line is like striking up a conversation with your seatmate on a plane. Once you are in it, you are pretty much in it for the duration.

Nevertheless, (and I know you won’t be surprised that Miss Mingle is telling you this) as long as we do have to spend so much time of our lives in lines, try to be open to in-line socializing. Don’t worry, it’s really not that different from being at a sit-down dinner party. You may have a bore on your left but a beauty on your right. If the person behind you is not your cup of tea, the person in front of you may be.

Note: This is one of those times when complaining is an acceptable conversational ploy. Commiserate about the length of the line—or about the shameless woman you just saw cutting it.


Originally published in The West Side Spirit, October 19, 2001

11/14/11

The Tao of Mingling*

It sounds like a simple thing, something we all should know: When you go to a cocktail party, it’s best to leave whatever social “goals” and expectations you may have at the door along with your coat and hat.

The best conversations are spontaneous ones. And while folks who live in parts of the country where the pace is nice and slow may not have to remind themselves to simply shoot the breeze or chew the fat, we do here. (In fact, here we are more likely try to burn off the fat.) The Big Apple is such a who-do-you-know, where-are-you-headed and how-fast-can-you-get-there kind of town that it makes us less able to let go and just be in the moment. (What—me, stop and smell the roses? Okay, but while I’m doing that, I’d better go ahead and buy a couple dozen, so I’ll have them ready for next weekend.)

When your average New Yorker sets out to mingle at a party with strangers, there are usually thoughts in the back of his mind like, “Who are the most important or most interesting guests here?” “Can this person further my career or my project in some way?” or “How can I find out what this person’s marital status is?” Others have a different sort of mental agenda, one that is more or less information-seeking. These are the multi-taskers hoping to make the party “worth it” who are constantly thinking things like, “Maybe there is someone here I can talk to about which schools would be good for my kids,” “I wonder if this person knows where to shop for a new bed” or “Ah…he’s at Chase; might he tell me what stocks to dump?”

And of course, often the party-goer’s mind isn’t even at the party. She may be smiling on the outside, but inside be wondering who is texting her (she can feel her phone vibrating) and whether it would be rude to excuse herself from the current conversation to check, or thinking about what she is going to have for dinner or whether she and her husband are going to continue the fight they were having before they got to the party once they get home.

Not too long ago, I went to a book launch downtown. The main reason I went, besides being interested in the author (which I was) and besides the fact that I never turn down any invitation if I can help it, was that the hostess had promised she would introduce me to a man who was, by all accounts, the perfect dealer for an antique desk I was hoping to sell.

After a semi-productive conversation with the dealer about the desk and after having the author sign a copy of his book for me, I found myself feeling aimless—in a good way. Aimless, in this situation, is actually what we aim for. I wandered for a few minutes before encountering a tall, tweedy couple (a middle-aged man and woman, obviously together). They were looking out the window at a building across the street. “It looks like a beached whale wearing mirrored sunglasses,” the man said. The three of us laughed. It actually did kind of look like a whale from that angle. The conversation took off from there.

I talked to that couple for a truly delightful 45 minutes. I still don’t know who they were or what, if anything, they do for a living. They didn’t ask me; I didn’t ask them. It was totally anonymous mingling (which, unlike anonymous sex, is completely risk-free.) It buoyed me, it rejuvenated me. I don’t even really remember what we talked about for all that time, except that it was fun and playful, creative and parenthetical. It was conversation for conversation’s sake. It was like a piece of verbal art we all wove together—effortless, improvisational and ultimately inspirational.

That night I remembered why I love talking to strangers. I had thought I was going to the party to meet an antique dealer, but it turned out it was to commune with the wonderful tweedy couple. I was in a good mood for hours afterward.

So at your next cocktail party, try conversing without any aspirations. Because, trust me, expecting no social reward is the key to the most rewarding kind of socializing there is.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, October 7, 2011

11/5/11

For Your Ears Only*

These days, there are a lot of people (and yes, I’m occasionally one of them) denouncing the omnipresence of cell phones. They point out that in the last 20 years, cell phones have gone from exotic rarities to bodily appendages we cannot live without; that people are increasingly unaware of what is going on around them, even while walking or driving, because they are glued to their phones; and that kids today rely on being able to look up everything they need to know on their smart phones and as a result are maybe not so smart. The biggest concern people seem to have is about how much our ever-expanding connectedness—via cell phone—to the vast universe of online social media is impinging on our privacy.

However, there is one function of cell phones that actually affords us more privacy, not less: voicemail.
This may seem like a minor aspect of modern communication technology. But just think back (if you are old enough) to what could, and often did, happen in the old days of home telephone answering machines: “Hello, Cheryl? Hey, it’s me. Are you there?…Cheryl?…Are you screening?…OK, well, call me back when you get home. You’re not going to believe what happened to me while I was on this date tonight. The guy actually unbuckled his belt right at the table in the restaurant, because he said he had eaten too much. I remember you told me sometimes Bobby used to do that with you, but…Oh…Uh…(embarrassed cough)…I…God. I totally forgot Bobby moved in with you. Sorry. Hi, Bobby—if you’re hearing this, which I hope you aren’t. (Deep breath) Not that there’s anything wrong with you hearing this, actually I thought the guy was cute, very down-to-earth. I really loved the whole belt thing…Um…Anyway, Cheryl, call me. It’s Sue.”

Before the days of cell phones, you never knew exactly who would hear your voice message—sometimes even while you were in the act of leaving it. People’s machines were often set with the volume turned up for screening purposes and so, for instance, your overly emotional message about being afflicted with perimenopausal insomnia might, unbeknownst to you, be overheard by your friend’s 10 dinner guests while they ate dessert.

Even now, when calling someone’s land line, we have to remember that someone else, such as the person’s spouse or child, might hear our voice message. It’s not always easy, in New York City, to keep track of who is in a particular household; you never know how many roommates or sleepover guests there could be. Even if the person you are calling has an off-site service (where he retrieves his messages from the phone company’s system) you still can’t be sure who might hear your message. It could be a shared service. And when calling the home of friends who are a couple, even though you may want to leave the message for only one of them, it can be considered rude to completely exclude the other person who lives there. All of these potential answering machine faux pas disappeared with the advent of cell phone voicemail.

Of course, the truth is that voicemail, even cell phone voicemail, is becoming extinct. All forms of communication technology are replaced by newer forms sooner or later. Voicemail is already considered by younger people to be as quaint and old-fashioned as white gloves at tea. Most people nowadays just text. But while texting is private too (assuming no one is looking over your shoulder), it does not have the emotional import of voicemail. This past summer during Hurricane Irene, I was stuck in Rehoboth Beach with my 85-year-old parents, who adamantly refused to evacuate, even though there was a mandatory evacuation order in effect. I thanked god for my cell phone. Not because I could use it to call for help or because I could check Facebook and Twitter for the minute-by-minute news, but because without my cell phone voicemail, my friends would not have been able to leave me completely private voice messages like, “Jeanne, just put your parents in the car, tell them you are going to go get ice cream and drive like hell outta there!”

And when my parents asked what phone messages I was getting, I just smiled and said, “Oh, nothing important…Hey, I don’t suppose you guys feel like getting ice cream?”

*Published in The West Side Spirit September 21, 2011

10/25/11

The Good, The Bad and the Oblivious*


Combine one part self-absorption, one part 21st-century apathy and one part urban burnout and what do you get?  You get a Way-blocker.

If you want proof that courtesy is on the wane, all you have to do is to observe the increasing number of pedestrians who fail to notice that there is someone else endeavoring to use the same sidewalk.  Whether it’s a clump of people who have chosen the middle of the sidewalk to hold some kind of social gathering, a person walking at a snail’s pace because he is on the phone, or a family of four who have decided they need to walk abreast--their arms entwined in an impassable human chain--it appears as though New Yorkers are more and more oblivious to the fact that there are others behind them who may actually have somewhere to go. 

To different types of way-blockers we can assign varying degrees of culpability.  Awe-struck tourists who stand in the middle of the sidewalk looking up may be irritating when you are late for work, but might perhaps be forgiven for their dazed and dazzled condition.  Pet owners who are focused on their pooping poodles to the temporary inconvenience of passersby may be annoying, but ultimately understandable.  Parents who block store aisles and crosswalks with their super-duper-deluxe double baby strollers do sometimes appear to have a sense of entitlement about their procreative right to slow up the world; but still, one has to take a deep breath and let them off the hook.  (We must always remember that most of them are majorly sleep-deprived.)  Even people who are talking on cell phones, impervious to all human movement around them, can be seen as distracted more than destructive.  Slow walkers, people who are window-shopping or lost, people with poor shopping-cart control--these are minor obstructors who can be frustrating, but for whom we all have to muster a little patience.

However, there is one form of offender that, in my book, can not be acquitted—or even, for that matter, comprehended: the person who stands smack in the middle of a doorway. 

What can these people be thinking?  To me, the act of standing still in a public doorway of any kind is a complete mystery, except for in the case of an immanent threat of an earthquake.  I mean, a doorway is like a faucet, a highway or a digestive tract.  You can’t just stand there, unmoving, in the passageway without being aware that you might be causing some kind of a stoppage.  And while the blocking of subway doors is probably the worst form of door-blocking, I admit I am also perplexed by people who stand around chatting away in the doorways of apartment buildings and stores.   (Let’s not even talk about folks who hold up the elevator while they chat.  I may get mad and press the Emergency button.)


Of course, because a doorway is a transitional space, it may seem to some to be a desirable place to have a “short-term” conversation, a non-committal exchange.  After all, you are ostensibly on our way in or out, so you do not have much time to talk, right?  You can be on the brink, with the words “Okay, gotta go” on the tip of your tongue.  You are in a great escape position.  Who cares if someone else is trying to get by?

As a society we are becoming less and less considerate about the needs and feelings of others around us (and yes, I am so often on this particular bandwagon I am eligible for Frequent Complainer Miles).  But way-blockers especially seem to me to be a symptom of this deterioration.  Why must I go through my day saying “Excuse me, excuse me!” when it’s not me who needs to be excused?

Maybe I am not seeing things from the blockers’ point of view.  After all, there are always two sides to everything.  Maybe I need to slow down and chill out, not judge people so harshly.  I mean, stopping to chat in a doorway is really not such a big deal.

On the other hand, it is also not such a big deal to just get the heck out of the way.

*Published in The West Side Spirit August 24, 2011

9/22/11

Mayberry Manhattan

It was one of those hot, humid evenings when you are so happy to get home to your apartment that you think you may never leave it again.  I had just peeled off my sweaty clothes and had started running a bath, preparing to settle in for the night, when I suddenly remembered I had completely run out of cat food.  Now, I realize to a non-pet owner this may not seem like a dire situation, but I really had nothing whatsoever to feed my hungry cat, not even a can of tuna.  And at that moment, the prospect of getting dressed again and going back outside into the inferno felt about the same as facing root canal.

Feeling half desperate, half sheepish, I dialed my neighborhood pet store, Petqua (on 98th and Broadway).  I can’t recall if it was Ed or Sam who answered the phone; they are interchangeably nice.  Whoever it was said, “No problem, Jeanne, we’ll send some food right over.”  They even knew what brand and flavor I needed.  There was no charge for delivery, even though I was not ordering very much.  As I had no cash, I started to ask if my credit card was on file in their computer.  “Forget it, don’t worry about it.  Just pay us next time you come in,” was the response.

It wasn’t that big a deal, really, but I suddenly felt as if I were living in some made-up small town on a TV show.  The whole thing was so easy, so stress-free--just like calling a next-door neighbor for a cup of sugar.  Of course, it’s really not such an unusual scenario, to be treated this way in your own neighborhood.  These small conveniences, this sense of being known and liked by local merchants, is one of the things that makes New York New York.  Still, this kind of informality and mutual trust is something that people somehow never expect is going to occur in a big city.  But within our own personal New York communities, the storekeepers know us--they know our habits, our tastes, and to some extent, we know theirs. Most people look forward each day to seeing the person from whom they buy their morning coffee, their lunch taco, their newspapers.  To freelancers these neighborhood exchanges can set the tenor of their whole day. 

New York is in essence a collection of many small villages.  Each one has it’s own flavor, its own separate personality.  This is one of the reasons people always want to know where you live when they first meet you; if it turns out you live in their neighborhood, it is like the fun of finding someone else from their home town.  But these “villages” can be very small in size.  Friends of mine who moved a mere block and a half from where they lived before in the West Village said it felt as if they were in a whole new area; even though they were living so close to where they had been living before, their route to and from the subway was different, and they went to different stores.  Years ago when I moved from Little Italy to the Upper West Side, I remember feeling as if I were in another city entirely.  I experienced the same disorientation, initial loneliness, and excitement about discovering new things that I felt when I moved from Baltimore to Chicago, or from Chicago to New York.  When the man who had done my laundry in Little Italy showed up as the new manager of the restaurant on my corner on the Upper West Side, I greeted him like a long lost friend.

It’s not that people in New York are nicer than people are in other areas of the country; it’s that they are the same as every where else.  People create their own small-town communities wherever they live.  It’s just that people who do NOT live in New York often do not understand just what a small town (or a whole bunch of small towns) the Big Apple can be.

There’s an old saying: “New York is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  In fact the reverse is true.  New York can be a very difficult place to visit—given its size, the vast number of choices to make, the constant swarm of strangers with which the visitor must contend.  But for us New Yorkers, each living in our own friendly little Mayberry RFD’s, it’s actually a great place to live.

(Originally published in The West Side Spirit, August 10, 2011)

7/27/11

On Your Left!

When I first heard someone yelling “On your left!” behind me on the Hudson River bike path, I admit it startled me. I thought, “Uh, oh—what’s on my left? A falling branch? A rampaging Canadian Goose?”

Now, years later, I know without thinking to immediately veer to the right (if I am not already all the way over, in which case I just maintain my line) upon hearing this familiar warning call, in order to let the passing bike go by. Some cyclists prefer “coming up on your left” or “passing on your left,” as there is the occasional person who will get confused and move left, into the path of the approaching cyclist, upon hearing “on the left.” Many bikes are equipped with warning bells, but especially in places like New York (where there are shared or crowded bike paths), “On your left” has become a useful and universally recognized part of cycle-to-cycle communication. While this warning is not always necessary (often there is plenty of room to pass the cyclist in front of you), “On your left” is a common-sense self-regulatory practice that helps keep people safe.

It’s not a perfect system. Plenty of people still ride too fast, pass recklessly or wait until they are one foot from the head of the person in front of them and yell the warning too loudly. Sometimes unaware pedestrians (walking three abreast) will look at the “On your left”-ing cyclist as if he were crazy, as if they have no understanding what he could possibly be about. Whenever I use the “On your left” alert, I like to say “thank you” as I pass (unless the biker or pedestrian I’m passing is doing something incredibly stupid, in which case I may forgo the thank you).

The other day while riding, I suddenly thought to myself, “This ‘on your left’ business is really pretty darned efficient. What if this particular piece of bike path etiquette could be used in other areas of urban life?”  For instance, on the city sidewalks at rush hour. Just imagine: You are in Times Square, behind hordes of rubber-necking tourists, trying to get through. (“On your left!”) Or on the subway, when no one will get out of the way of the doors. (“On your left!”) On the bus, when folks won’t move back—even though there is plenty of room in the rear of the bus. (“On your left!”) What about in the grocery store, when the aisle is blocked with a diagonally-parked cart? (“On your left!”) It might come in very handy in the aisles of the theater at intermission, when you have only 15 minutes and you know the ladies room will be packed. (“On your left!”) Trouble getting a turn at the crowded ladies room hand dryers? (“On your left!”) And how about at a cocktail party, when that annoying glut of people is standing there chatting, blocking access to the food, and you are dying for a cheese and cracker? (“On your left! Thank you!”)
After all, “On your left” is nicer—not to mention more specific—than “MOVE!” and yet so much more forceful than “excuse me?” (Half the time when you say “Excuse me” you may as well be a mourning dove cooing in the background, for all the good it does.) “On your left” indicates an inevitability about your coming through. It’s confident, powerful.  And you are not just asking someone to get out of your way but offering direction about which way they need to move.

In actuality of course, this would be the end of civilized behavior. “On your left” is palatable on the bike path because it is a mid-game warning, like calling “fore” when golfing. What is acceptable at bike speed is not acceptable on foot. Obviously if we stopped asking each other permission and merely jumped ahead of others when we felt like it, we would slide quickly into social anarchy. Soon it would be “Coming through!” and “Out of my way, bozo!”

Still, it is tempting. The next time I am sitting in a cab, stuck in traffic, I might just have to try leaning out of the window and yelling “On your left!” to see what happens.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, July 14, 2011

7/14/11

Invasion of the Picture-Takers*

The idea that a camera can “steal one’s soul” is generally considered a primitive belief, held only by backward people in a few isolated corners of the Globe.  But I, for one, am beginning to think this soul-stealing notion may be more insightful than uncivilized.

Recently a friend told me about a dinner party he hosted.  One of his guests happened to be a very handsome guy.  Without warning, while Mr. Handsome was in the kitchen, another guest whipped his phone out and took a picture of him.  Just like that.  As if it were the most normal thing in the world to photograph someone you only just met while he is helping himself to pasta salad.  A neighbor of mine, who is married, went to a 50th birthday party last month where there was a lot of dancing going on, and the next day on Facebook she was shocked to discover multiple photos of her with her arms around her former boyfriend--unflattering action shots which made her look drunk (which she wasn’t) and flirty (which she also wasn’t).  The other day some friends stepped outside their West Village apartment to check out the commotion caused by an exploding manhole, and a young woman—after taking pictures of the scene, the fire trucks and police—pointed her phone right at my friends and started inexplicably snapping away at them.  When they stared incredulously at her she just smiled obliviously.  I’ve heard people complain about being photographed “against their will” on busses and trains, in theaters, on street corners, in their offices, in museums, in restaurants, in the park, in hotel lobbies.  Every idiot with a phone is now paparazzi and every person is fair game.

This is a completely new social phenomenon.  Never before this decade has it been the case that almost everyone has a camera on them at all times.  What’s more, there is no cost for film, and no developing necessary—just instantaneous world-wide digital publication.  (At least in the old days, when you saw that man on the beach aiming his camera at you, you could be fairly sure it was for his eyes only.  Not the whole world.)   The result?  Everyone feels it is their iPhone-given right to take pictures of everything and anyone that comes into their view.  As if the technology itself is the permission.  You never know when someone might take a picture of you.  You can never completely let your guard down.  Smile.  You’re on Candid Camera.  Forever.

This photographing frenzy is even more disturbing when you consider the latest face recognition technology.  Facebook’s facial recognition technology function has been called “creepy.”  But when a stranger can shoot you from a distance in a crowd, and then look you up on line with that photo and find out everything about you, I think that’s more than creepy.  I think that’s terrifying.

So what’s a poor photo-shy person to do these days?  The only hope is for the potential target of a photo to stop it at its source:  the photographer.  My rule (and I only wish I could make it other people’s rule, which alas I do not have the power to do) is that unless you are in a parade, on stage, or engaged in exhibitionistic behavior—like walking down the street with a poodle on your head—a person should ask your permission before taking your photo.  If he doesn’t, you might try aiming your own camera at him, although this may only serve encourage him.  I feel it is best to try to “gently” educate these overzealous photogs by waving your hand in between your body and their cameras and yelling, “Hey! Excuse me!?  Please don’t do that!  Who the heck do you think you are?!”

Okay, so maybe I’m overreacting.  Maybe our actual souls are not in jeopardy.  But when those photos of us with our unsuspecting mouths open and our hair every which way and the wind hitting us from the entirely wrong angle are posted on line for countless strangers to ogle, I do feel that something essential is being stolen.  What is being stolen, of course, is not only our dignity, but more important, our privacy, which, like our souls, can not be replaced.


*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 29, 2011

6/24/11

Guest-ation Periods*

The other day I ran into my friend Julie on the street. She looked exhausted. “I haven’t been home for two days,” she told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I have no privacy there anymore!” she confessed. It turned out a friend had asked her if he could stay in her apartment “for a few days” while the contractors were finishing up the renovations on his own, newly-purchased apartment.

“Contractors?” I practically yelled at her. “My god, Julie. You know what ‘a few days’ means to contractors! It could be weeks….even months. What were you thinking?”

“I know, I know,” said Julie, putting her hand up to her forehead in despair. “It’s been over a week already, and he doesn’t show any signs of leaving. He keeps talking about how upset he is that they put the wrong flooring in and how they have to rip it all out. He’s very apologetic about it.”

I steered her into a nearby coffee place. “You’re the one who should be apologetic, Julie, when you tell him he needs to leave.”

The unwanted house guest is a common problem for people who live in places like New York City, where it’s almost impossible to find a cheap place to stay—and which happens to be the preferred destination for so many vacationers. I have heard numerous stories about people who come to visit for a few days and settle in for a month. This is why host/guest pre-communication (“hospitality foreplay”) is so important. The host needs to define the terms of the “guest-ation period” before the guest(s) gets settled into the host’s office or living room. And the host should have no guilt about setting limits.

What are these limits? When you’d like to put out the welcome mat, but don’t want to be a total doormat, how long should you let someone stay? How do you know, until someone is actually in your home, how much you will be bothered (or not bothered) by his presence? We’ve all heard the saying (generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin) about fish and houseguests smelling after three days, but this maxim is really only half true. A really great guest who has come at the perfect time—when your work is slow, or the kids are off at camp—can stay for a week and it can be more pleasurable for you than a difficult guest who has arrived at an inopportune time and stays for only one night. A visit from a couple with several very small, very precocious children can make a half a day seem like a month. If you live in east Texas and hardly ever have houseguests, a two-week visit from good friends can feel like heaven; however if you live in a place like Manhattan, where most people’s living space is cramped and the flow of houseguests never-ending, you may opt for a strict two-night only rule.

There is no question that the friend who needs to stay with you because they are having a problem of some kind—be it divorce or demolition—is often the trickiest. You feel horrible saying no, and yet there is nothing socially beneficial about the experience for you, for the most part. It’s just an intrusion on your life. And while we--at certain times--could, would and should put a friend-in-need up for however long they need it, it is not by any means de rigueur. The problem is, it’s hard for most of us to say no to a friend. This is one of those times when a white lie may save you both from painful awkwardness. If the friend desires to stay longer than you want him to, the best thing may be to simply tell him you have someone else coming to stay at the end of the week--or that your apartment is being painted, or your bathtub reglazed.

After our iced Mocha Lattes, I finally convinced Julie that she would not be a horrible person if she asked her friend-turned-houseguest to leave. We began to strategize.

“Hey, what about bedbugs?” said Julie with a sudden gleam. “What if I told him I think I have bedbugs? Would that work?”

“No,” I said emphatically, “some things are too horrible to fib about. It’s bad karma. Besides, next thing you know he’ll tell someone else you have bedbugs and that will be the end of your social life.”

Although, I thought to myself, there is one good thing about bedbugs. You don’t have to feel bad about trying to get rid of them.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 15, 2011

6/13/11

The World is My Dumpster*

Last Saturday night I witnessed a random act of "terracism."

It started off as a perfect evening at the home of friends. It was a balmy 72 degrees, with a gentle Hudson River breeze—ideal conditions for eating outside. My fellow dinner guests seemed in particularly good spirits—and why not? Our hostess was a professional chef, so we all knew we were in for a gastronomical treat. Moreover, the hosts’ second-floor terrace was exceptionally large (by New York standards) and was furnished for maximum guest comfort. Seated at the long wooden dining table, we were just beginning to enjoy the first few bites of a delectable leg of lamb when suddenly—whzzzt!—a lit cigarette came plummeting down, passing six inches from the host’s ear and landing next to him on the deck.

We all shrieked, then laughed. (It happened to be the night that wacky group of Christians thought the world was going to end, which may have made us a little more jumpy than usual at the sight of fiery objects flying by.) Our host, looking miserable, informed us that this kind of thing happened to them on a regular basis, and that sailing cigarette butts were not by any means the worst occurrences. Other kinds of trash, including (horrors!) used condoms, had been flung down during dinners. After that we found ourselves glancing upwards every so often at the balconies stretching some 40 floors above us, like Chicken Little waiting for the sky to fall. The sweetness of the evening now seemed tainted with unknown menace. When it began to drizzle, we happily moved inside. The drizzle did not last long, however, and we began to think about moving back out on the terrace for dessert. That’s when it started really pouring—or so we thought. In actuality someone was watering plants on a balcony a couple stories up!

The hosts, who had moved into the building recently, confessed that they had chosen this particular apartment because of the spacious terrace; they had anticipated a whole glorious summer of entertaining al fresco. Now, after three months of dealing with the nasty neighborly debris, they were thinking of moving. They had never imagined a building with such high rents would have such low-life tenants. They told us neighbors walking their dogs below them occasionally tossed poop up over the railing onto their terrace as well.  Complaints to the landlord had been fruitless.

There are, of course, many people (mostly bored teens) who see balcony vandalism as a sport—throwing water balloons or furniture off to see how things will smash, or how people below will scatter. There is even a website where people brag-post about the various items—bottles, cans, books, mice (to name a few of the tamer ones)—they enjoy hurling off balconies. In fact, the sheer number of YouTube videos there are of people tossing objects off rooftops and balconies suggests an innate impulse of some sort—a compulsion to engage with the laws of gravity. Perhaps the desire to let things fall is a deep-rooted instinct that kicks in when mammals are up high in open air. Like a chimp throwing down coconuts from the top of a tree.

However, notwithstanding the possibility of some sort of terrace envy, or actual hostility regarding noise that may be wafting up from the terrace parties below them, the people who are tossing cigarette butts in this case are not doing it for fun. Presumably they are just thoughtless individuals, with no idea of the potential consequence of a lit cigarette catapulted into the air. Perhaps in their version of reality, the cigarette ceases to be as soon as it leaves their hands. This kind of social blindness, the lack of consciousness about the existence of other people, is sadly a part of our modern urban life.

By the end of the night, as we were enjoying our chocolate cream puffs from the safety of the smaller dining area indoors, we had come to the consensus that our hosts were going to have to invest in a protective awning—flame resistant, if not bulletproof. After all, as one man put it, “They do say that good fences make good neighbors.”

“Hmm,” I said, gazing out at the dripping sofa cushions on the terrace. “If fences make good neighbors, I guess balconies make bad ones.”


*Published June 1, 2011, in The West Side Spirit
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6/6/11

Communicable Dis-Ease*

 I was visiting my aunt, who had just moved into an Alzheimer’s assisted living facility.  Her long-term memory is still pretty much intact, which makes conversation tricky, because often she seems totally with it--until she begins to talk about the men who are stealing her toothbrush, or about how I am living in the room next to her.  “Have they been calling you for dinner on time?” she says. “You know last night they canceled it entirely.”  Or “Did they tell you what’s wrong with you?  They won’t tell me, but I think I have some kind of vitamin deficiency.”  I stayed with her for a little over an hour, trying to divert her--as I had been instructed--away from conversations about her health, her future, or why she no longer has a phone or a stove.  I complimented the pictures on the wall (water colors she painted in her youth); we sang a funny song the family used to sing together at Thanksgiving dinner.   I tried to counter her fearful inquiries about the drugs “they” were giving her with cheerful observations about how good I’d heard the food was, and how excited I was about the community garden she would be able to be involved in.

But after I said goodbye, a weird thing happened to me.  I suddenly found myself confused about the location of the facility’s exit (to be fair, this was due partially to the building’s design―as naturally, they don’t want the residents getting out.)  Moreover, I became unaccountably anxious about my temporary disorientation.  I began to feel unusually frustrated, until after what felt like an eon, a staff member kindly showed me the way out.  Later I realized what had happened: I had been influenced―no, infected--by my aunt’s state of mind.

Though my ailing aunt can certainly not be held responsible, the experience I had is an example of a common social phenomenon―a form of social infectiousness I think of as “the Transmitted Vibe.”  The Transmitted Vibe occurs when you pick up, or “catch” the strong energy of the person with whom you are interacting.  My spending an hour with a person with memory-loss dementia was the cause of my inability to negotiate my way out of there.  My brain started to mirror hers (I even found myself blathering to the receptionist on my way out, apologizing too much, and feeling oddly unfocused.)

This kind energy transference between people occurs all the time, albeit usually in more normal social circumstances.  For instance, you go to a party where everyone around you is happy about some recent triumph and find yourself feeling abnormally buoyant.  You go to a family dinner where everyone is stressed out and argumentative, and you become unaccountably pissy.  You go to a dinner party where everyone is laid back and telling funny stories, and suddenly you are laughing and relaxed, and find you can even remember a joke you used to tell in college.  You go to an event where everyone is bored, and you suddenly feel there is a cotton around your brain and all you want to do is go home.

Just like the flu, the Transmitted Vibe is a form of contagion.  If what you are catching is of the positive variety, so much the better; however, there is no simple immunization against a person with bad vibes.  (They don’t make Airborne for this.)  All you can do is to be aware when someone’s negative energy is affecting you and try to remove yourself from that person if possible. 

More important, always try to remember, when preparing to enter into a social arena, that you yourself are potentially contagious.  If you are in such a bad mood that you are not sure you will be able to have a good time, remember that donning your best attitude is as important as donning your best dress.  Not just for you, but for the people you might unwittingly infect.  Most of us are more susceptible than we would ever imagine to the moods of those around us.  And, just as we should cover our mouths when we cough, we must endeavor to avoid spreading social dis-ease.

Laugh and the world laughs with you―cry and you may just depress the heck out of someone.


*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, May 4, 2011

1/17/11

False Alarm*

When my carbon monoxide alarm went off at four in the morning on New Year’s Eve, the only thing on my mind was getting the ear-splitting screeching to stop.  So I did what many a half-asleep person would do at 4am.  (Though I categorically do NOT recommend that anyone else do this.)  I got up on a ladder, grabbed the alarm, and after hitting the test/silence button to no avail, took the battery out.

I tried to decide what to do next.  I was loath to call 911 at 4am on New Year’s Eve.  I checked the stove, opened the kitchen window, went on the First Alert website.  In the end, I decided I would just crack open some other windows and go back to sleep. 

That’s when I made my mistake.  Before getting back in bed, I posted a query on Facebook.  I described what had happened, then asked for opinions on how concerned I should be, and how often these alarms go off due to a bad battery or malfunction.  This seemed like a good idea at the time.  After all, here were 232 friends and acquaintances from whose experience and knowledge I could cull.  Perhaps some would reassure me by telling me these things often went off by mistake.

Then I did something truly stupid.  I made a little joke at the end of the post--a joke born, perhaps, of that tiny part of me that thought it was possible I might be in danger.  I wrote, “I will be happy to get your advice on CM alarms and batteries, etc. tomorrow when I wake up.  That is, if I wake up!”

My closest friends knew I was kidding, but some people did not.  Even a smiley face can not lighten an otherwise ominous sentence.  And the truth is that I am usually extremely conservative when it comes to Facebook posts.  I am jealous of my privacy; the idea of plastering my personal life all over the internet is unappealing to me.  Before posting, I always try to remind myself how many people may see my post.  But the thing about Facebook is that you usually can’t call to mind every single one of your hundreds of friends.  For example, on New Year’s Eve I wasn’t thinking about my old high school friend, Matty.  If I had, I might have been able to predict how she would react.

Matty freaked out.  She set off a personal alarm louder than the one I had to take the battery out of.  She posted a frantic comment on Facebook.  She called me at 6am.  (Who is awake at 6am on New year’s Day?)  When she got my voice mail, she said “I am VERY concerned.  I think you are in trouble.  Call me back immediately!”  She called again at 8:00, and at 8:45.  I retrieved my messages at 9:30 and called her back just as she was getting ready to alert the fire department and have them bust down my door.

She was apoplectic; I was apologetic.  Indeed, I felt sheepish and guilty.  I hung up and logged onto Facebook as quickly as I could make my fingers move.  I typed “Okay that was a dumb thing to post, I am ok everybody,” before even reading the other comments.  Most people had merely offered advice about opening windows, but one person had written, “Leave the house immediately!!”  One friend, a fireman, chastised me for disabling a life-saving device, but then did offer the helpful information that a dead battery can in fact make the alarm go off.  (Which is what, as it turned out, had happened.)

But why had I been so cavalier?  Are all New Yorkers desensitized to alarms, because we hear them going off so frequently—car alarms, store alarms, fire alarms, emergency-vehicle sirens?  Or is it because I am “wired” to assume that anything in my rent-stabilized, pre-war apartment is bound to break down, so I don’t really have to take an alarm seriously?  How many other New Yorkers hear an alarm and think, “What a nuisance” instead of “I am in mortal danger?”

Whether or not I am jaded in this manner, one thing is for certain: I broke the number one rule of on-line status posting: Never joke about dying.  Believe me, no one will lol.

PS:  I put a new battery in the next day and everything was fine.  My alarm may sound again some day, but I myself will never sound the alarm.  (At least not on Facebook.)

 (*Originally published in The West Side Spirit, 1/13/11)