Wednesday, October 24, 2012


OCTOBER 24, 2012

          We normally have breakfast at Starbuck's in Bridgehampton, not every morning, but often. This morning around 9:30 two women came in with a little girl, who proceeded to pop around the room making noise. Can't describe the noises, but they were the kind that children make when they're very young, say around two, and they were relentless. The two women did nothing to quiet her; they behaved as if it were just fine that their child or grandchild or whoever she was was destroying the peace that had hitherto prevailed in the room.

          Why do people think it's OK to bring very young children into a place like a restaurant or even a coffee shop and run around like the little maniacs they are and bother everybody else?

          We have acquaintances we are reluctant to dine out with because of the way they behave toward the waiters and waitresses. Arrogant, demanding, impatient are words that fit.

          On the road, especially in the summer here in the Hamptons, drivers cut you off, tailgate, ignore stop signs, and talk on their cell phones while they're driving. I used to ride a bike for exercise. No longer. I've driven behind too many people who, holding a cell phone to their ear, weave and wander out of their lanes, drive onto the shoulders, unaware of where they are or what they're doing. They are no better in the stores. I once saw an architect who had just put up a hideous modern house clad entirely in sheet metal walk into the Sagaponack General Store and push his way to the head of the line. People stared in disbelief. Wherever they are, people talk on their cell phones. I once listened to a man on a bus to the city talk loudly about his sex life on his cell phone to some woman he had been dating. There were about five people on the bus. We could all hear what he said. It took him some twenty minutes to realize that he was making a fool of himself in public.

          Why do people think it's OK to hold private conversations in public, conversations nobody else wants to listen to? It's as if everyone had been given a megaphone to carry on their private lives.

          Once I was on a train from New York to Washington and some idiot sat down next to me and proceeded to call somebody and talk to him for fifteen or twenty minutes, and that somebody else was on the same train. Then he did the same with yet another person, also on the train. Think about it. For that person, nobody else exists; nobody else counts but himself and his immediate business. Now I take the quiet car, where the conductor strictly enforces a code of silence; and it's blissful by comparison. But you still find people even on the quiet car who just have to make that call. It's as if their concept of their own personal space extended way beyond everybody else's.

          Age has its privileges, and at my age I often don't get up and give a woman on the subway a seat. It depends on the woman and the circumstances. But I always think I should and sometimes do. I hold doors for women and men alike, especially when they're carrying packages, stop for pedestrians crossing the road, don't think of driving as a blood sport. It's training. It was watching my father and other men and how they behaved, both publicly and privately.  I don't believe either of my parents would ever have held a public conversation on a cell phone if there had been cell phones then. To them it would have been unthinkable. Social life evolves, I understand that, but people my age look with dismay at the way it has evolved since the 1960s. I blame the 1960s, in fact, for much of this, and the so-called "me decade" that followed. Manners are the visible manifestation of inner attitudes. Good manners indicate respect for other people and their rights, which are the same as yours, and respect for the standards of behavior that prevail in any given society. As respect for public institutions began to decline during the Vietnam War, which was a particularly stupid, evil war, so did respect for other people and their rights; so, indeed, did the kind of empathy that keeps social life endurable. Empathy is now in much shorter supply, and it is the lack of it, in my opinion, that has driven the extremism of the Republican right, with their indifference to the difficulties of the poor and their inability to walk that imaginative mile in other peoples' shoes. Hard-line attitudes, so-called "realism," a turning away from the social responsibility that we all share for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves--this is bad manners on a massive scale, and the two are connected, the large and the small, the social and the individual, each a mirror of the other.

          There's a scene in Henry James's novel PORTRAIT OF A LADY where the heroine, Isabel Archer, walks into a room to find her husband, Gilbert Osmond, sitting in a chair while her friend, whose name I forget but who is a woman, stands next to him; and she understands instantly that they know each other in a way that is far more intimate than she had ever been told. In a well-mannered world, no man would sit while a woman stood unless their relationship was unusually intimate, almost like husband and wife. It's a brief moment in a big book, but it's decisive: manners display who we are. We need not be quite so formal now, but without some formality, some set of rules that encode respect for others, what does social life become if not a tangle of each against all, a Hobbesian world, savage at its core, unjust, and without compassion? Such a world is inherently, as it were by definition, fascist.