mail, information regarding the more obscure end of the etiquette canon is exclusive to oral history. The extent of your knowledge is a résumé of how well you were reared, which reflects directly on your parents’ worth. Each time my sisters and I left our home, we were on display and accordingly assessed. Every meal, shopping trip, church outing, and car pool was a recital. Growing up, I was watched as if by a hawk, except without the eventual relief of being eaten.
Once, while I was setting the kitchen table—a full spate of silverware at each place, even if we were only having stew—my mother answered the phone.
I knew instantly that Mrs. Andrews had called to report on our chance encounter that afternoon at the Hop-In convenience store.Like a perfect soldier, I’d walked her out to her Mercedes, carried her purchases, opened her door, and capped off the exchange with, “See you Sunday in church!”
“What beautiful manners she has!” I heard Mrs. Andrews’s voice crackling through the receiver. “You’ve done a wonderful job.” Mom beamed. I didn’t tell her that I was really just occupying the woman’s attention so my friend Kristen could buy us cigarettes.
Regardless of the motivations behind the actions, I’d followed the code. And, like I said, the code matters most. In the big city, though, people follow a different set of rules, which is to say, they don’t. New Yorkers are nice, mind you; the rude stereotype is largely false. But we don’t do anything for the sole purpose of
. Although we live within a few miles of both the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, most of us have visited neither. In other words, we don’t even do things with well-established purposes. Pointless endeavors never had a fighting chance.
This neglect of niceties can be disconcerting to visitors. It was for my friend Wortley. She lives in Wilson, a small eastern North Carolina town, which is actually pronounced “Wiltson” (I think this is where all of the silent t’s go). To give you a little context, Wortley and her husband, her cousin and her cousin’s husband, and her parents all live on the same street. I don’t even know the name of the person in the apartment across the hall.
Wortley and I went shopping in SoHo. Afterward, I hailed us a cab, requested our destination, reclined in my seat, and launched back into the conversation we’d started on the street.
“Jane!” she said in shock. I was being scolded, but I didn’t know why. She threw her Theory bag on the floor, leaned forward, stuck her sun-freckled nose through the small crack in the partition, and said, “I’m sorry, sir. How are
“I wasn’t being rude,” I heard myself saying a little too defensively. “I was respecting his space. Surely he wants to be left alone.” But my blustering was wasted; Wortley and I had both seen him smile in the rearview mirror. The jig was up. Chastened, I explained that the curt nature of New Yorkers—careful to distance myself from the group—shouldn’t be interpreted as rudeness. It’s a side effect of being so busy; it’s symptomatic of having to deal with the sheer number of other people in the fishbowl.
These excuses hold water, but they aren’t the whole story. There are fundamental reasons why a culture of etiquette will never grow in Gotham. First, manners require social interaction while New Yorkers are bred for anonymity, naturally selected to blend in and go unnoticed. Those who accidentally stand out get mugged. Or, worse, end up on reality-TV prank shows. Neither does one want to be mistaken for the kind of person who
stands out, for example, evangelical Christians or, worse, actors on reality-TV prank shows. Otherwise, a New Yorker moves silently through the city like a preoccupied ghost. That’s why we wear black: the better to disappear.
Another reason mannered society won’t thrive in New York is
Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé