Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The rule of rude

By Don Klein

If you visited New York City this winter you might have gotten the impression that there has been an attitudinal metamorphosis among big city dwellers. Had they really mellowed into a twilight zone of kindliness and civility?

Could the elusive miracle have happened? Has the page been turned? Have the denizens of the city that never sleeps become tamed? Not at all. Have faith children. The tribe of the ugly New Yorker we all know so well is still plentiful. They simply have gone to Florida for the winter.

Let me explain. The day after New Year’s we made a special trip to the city on the Hudson primarily to attend a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. We were stupefied at how well behaved everyone was during that noteworthy weekend. Everywhere we were met with cordiality, helpfulness and pleasantries. At every level of contact. Can you believe it?

I concluded that things have changed since I grew up in what is often called The Big Apple. I remember brusque behavior was the rule, competition down to the level of out-pacing someone for a seat on the subway or racing one’s auto ahead of others to the next traffic light, and elbowing one’s self to the front of any line.

We were indoctrinated in that behavior as children. When my mother-in-law sent my wife as a young girl to the bakery Sunday morning, older more field tested women would push past her to order their bagels out of sequence of their arrival at the store. She learned to push back and use her elbows as well. We all did.

None of that existed while we spent the post New Year weekend in the Times Square area. A miracle? A transformation? Had Jehovah fired a lightning bolt down on the street of a million lights? None of these. I now realize that the people we ran into during that fateful visit were those employed in tourism, where it pays to be pleasant, or out-of-towners who were unaware of the New York rule of rude.

Six weeks later we found ourselves visiting friendly relatives in lower Florida when much to our surprise, we discovered a nest of ugly, wayward and temporarily displace New Yorkers. They were hiding right out in the open, basking in the subtropical sun. The southland did not improve their bad manners though. They brought them with them.

I first noticed this on the broad, well-defined Florida roads. The motorist who gives no quarter to anyone is always present, cutting other drivers off and displaying aggressive lack of concern for everyone. Clearly a New York trait, sometimes shared by others but when they are driving a car with NY plates, there is no need for further ID.

Strangely enough there is a contrast among New York drivers. The opposites are the elderly ones, who after a lifetime of intimidation on northern highways by the aforementioned antagonistic road ruffians, have been reduced to a level of determined timidity so that even backing out of a parking lot space could take longer than unmooring the QM2 and easing it into the Hudson.

It doesn’t end when out of the car and on their feet. There is always the copyrighted Manhattan snarl. You get that if you are unfortunate enough to be in their way in any market environment. New Yorkers are the only people who can make the simple request "please let me pass" sound like "get out of my damn way you freaking dimwit."

Then there are the circumstances of queues at information counters or cashier check-outs or on line to order a deli sandwich or in autos at busy gas stations or waiting to buy a movie ticket. The ugly New Yorker is the expert at weaseling ahead of his or her legitimate place in line. It’s a manifestation of the adage "Me first." Women are best at this.

There are other things that make a visit to Florida memorable. Since the Sunshine State is the ultimate destination for seniors it is interesting to watch how they walk. Some lean forward like they are about to fall on their faces while walking, others spread their arms as though they were wings to maintain balance, and some move as though their shoes are attached to the street with Elmer’s Glue.

Then there is the license plate policy in the state where some say there is over thirty different versions. There is the standard plate with an outline map of Florida with two oranges superimposed on top. But that’s just the beginning. There are manatees, panthers, butterflies, alligators, swordfish, flamingos, dolphins, an apple, tie dye, plus all the colleges have their own design, and the Olympics and a family first design. That’s just a few noticed in one busy parking lot and probably represent the most special tags of any state.

These may sound like petty nuisances but after living more than a half century in comparative bucolic Maryland I have lost the killer instincts familiar to my native New York upbringing. I now echo, not abhor, what others used to define as pushiness. I cannot understand the need to be competitive while motoring around town or when ordering a pastrami sandwich.

Now let me mention what I like about Florida:

++ Its wide and convenient local roads.
++ Its abundance of excellent restaurants.
++ Its balmy weather, even when locals describe 70 degrees as chilly. Hah!!
++ Its oranges and grapefruits.
++ Its range of novel shopping centers.

But in some ways it still reminds me of the adage about Paris. You know the one about loving Paris despite the Parisians who live there.

Watch for my next commentary: Castration for sex offenders?