Daily Archives: July 16, 2005

Anonymity

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

So, I’m just back from a trip to Boston, where I succumbed to a serious case of municipal puppy love. Damn, what a great town. Yummy food, worthwhile eye candy, and the people were all friendly to a fault.

Except this one guy. Long story short, it was a crowded Starbucks, and he felt I had done him an injury over table-sharing etiquette. So after moving to another table, he came back and lectured me on my manners. Naturally, before I left, I went back to his table and told him that I was a visitor to Boston, and he was the first rude person I had met there.

I left as he cheerily called behind me, “Anytime! Come back, I’ll do it again!”

I can’t say that this exactly bothered me. Not to put too fine a point on it, some percentage of the population consists of assholes, and you can’t live in a city without encountering a few. He probably put me in the same category. But it stands out because I was traveling, and in that odd sensory state where you notice the world around you a bit more, and perhaps are bit more open to making new connections.

On the trip in from the airport this morning, I struck up conversations with at least nine people; might have been more, I just remember the nine. Three instances of giving directions to out-of-towners, and a conversation with a guy at the bus stop about the historical social impact of air conditioning in the American South. (This is how I talk about the weather.)

I didn’t do this because I’m a nice guy. In fact, I’m an acknowledged bastard—crotchety and irritable and quick to get into a confrontation. The Starbucks thing was all about that, when I wouldn’t back down from the one guy holding a table for four next to the only power outlet; other people might be less likely to stand their ground there. But I also make a point of deliberately choosing to be friendly, because I want people leaving Washington with the same warm feelings I had in Boston—and those stemmed from the sum total of how people treated me there.

It’s good for my karma. But more importantly, it’s a massively positive trade-off. On my side, I’m giving up 10 minutes of my humdrum day. On the other side, if I give good advice and warm fuzzies to someone who is having, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime trip, then I’m contributing to something that might last decades. In 2035, someone might take a look at their picture of the Zoo and remember that nice guy who gave them bus directions. More likely (and more importantly), they’ll just remember what a good day they had.

That’s if I single you out. But otherwise, if I don’t know you, you’re just part of the scenery, and I am the same to you. I probably was in the vicinity of over a thousand people this morning alone: in two airports, on Metro trains, and then arriving home in my busy tourist-bedecked neighborhood. Nine of them briefly became human to me; everyone else made up the human flotsam, the loud voices when I tried to sleep, or the foreign language soundtrack you always hear in DC. A necessary requirement for urban living; there are good sociological reasons why you only greet people on the street in places where the population density is low.

And yet…. It was precisely that anonymity that gave that man in Boston social leave to lecture me, and the same that allowed me to respond in kind. What if he’s a Whatever reader? What if he liked my previous posts, felt like he knew me a little bit? What if he reads this and recognizes himself? Would that change the self-righteousness he took from our encounter—which I’m sure he felt, as I did. It’s my distinction between my calling him an asshole and myself a bastard. Bastards are justified in what they do, at least in their own minds. Assholes are just in it for the random cruelty.

My name is Jeff, and I’m a bastard. (Chorus: Hi, Jeff!) But catch me at the right moment, and I’ll be astonishingly generous to you, or any other stranger. I think most of us fall into that pattern to some degree or another. And I also believe that a fairly large number of social ills stem from the calluses we’ve had to build, which we live behind whenever we act like bastards.

When I have time, I have a few more words to say about that.