(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.

7 Comments on “Anonymity”

  1. Of course, Bastards are encountered in Starbucks, but the most common of the Bastard species, the True Bastard, is only encountered while working in Customer Service.

  2. Right up my alley, the yin-yang and the sardine can. I’ve been bumming around this 36o degree globe all my life… family, schools, work, the sea, fishing, peddling lemonade from my wagon, making love to millionaires’ wives as well as their daughters… I am white and I have worked as the only white amongst how many blacks… they took me in… they dug and I dug them… that’s how I got raised… our door, when we had one, was always open… This is what makes the heart and soul beat… It’s called gettin’ along… and when you got work to do, joyful work… best bet is that you stay out of bad, real bad, trouble. Just as you, here in Greece… we, if in the mood, sit down at any chair… commence in a learning conversation, share our spirits and then… we continiue on… we do that with all of our human sharings… you can’t predict what will happen… but you take the chance… and if you don’t take the chance you have not lived, for it was chance that made you live and according to the latest statistics… will probably do you in. Ask a girl you see at another table… what are you doing for dinner…? The worst she can say is “No!!!” It’s like fishing… Then you round the corner and another beauty hits you… that’s the life… It’s all these peapod peckerheads with no place go anymore… like dinasours, when humans are gone… the birds and the fish will thrive on… not caring caring one jot, as they do now, about us old numbass, dumbass… ah, yet there are out there some wonderful, wonderful persons… I know this, you know it, too. That’s why I write… Give you a good warm slap hand on your back and down the road we go. Dig? STB

  3. “Yummy food, worthwhile eye candy, and the people were all friendly to a fault.”

    are you sure you were visiting Boston, Massachusetts, and not some other place named as much? ‘cuz I grew in the Boston Metro area and you’ll never hear me suggest the people are either beautiful or friendly.

  4. Let me get this straight: this guy was sitting at a table, and you asked him politely if you could sit there too, and he said no, and you sat there anyway? And you’re calling *him* rude? Sorry, man, but you get the prize. That’s a total violation of the local rules of etiquette, and he was right to lecture you.

    I spent about five years living in the Boston area, after having grown up in Western Mass. I have to say that my impression of Bostonians is not that they’re unusually friendly. If you want friendly, try Manhattan. But I’m glad that you generally had a good experience, despite your one bout of being rude to a local and getting lectured for it. Boy is *that* in character for a Bostonian. :’)

  5. R U sure you were in Boston, Massachusetts, home of the bean and the cod? Bostonians are not known for our friendliness. It’s not that we’re known for rudeness either, just reserve. Extreme reserve. We are a taciturn and reserved lot until we get to know you. The friendly people must have been tourists and the bastard in Starbucks a grad student from New York. New York sends its offspring here for college, grad school, med school, and all that educational stuff — an early form of outsourcing.

  6. Ted —

    I deliberately avoided the details of the incident because I didn’t want to get into the minutia. But suffice to say: a) you got it somewhat wrong, and b) what I did was well within the bounds of Starbucks etiquette, which is a culture unto itself. I have no doubt that some people would find my actions rude; honestly, I didn’t much care to start that debate, which is why I glossed over it in my post. If you’d care to discuss what happened at the table, you’re missing my point.

    Peleg and Chris, yes, the one in Massachusetts. I didn’t make any best friends for life while I was there, but everyone else made me feel at home.

  7. Jeff, I have long thought that we Southerners would be living in a third-world country without air conditioning. Do you have any references for the historical importance of ac in the South?

    /115 degree heat index today in sunny Hattiesburg, MS

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