A little fragment of conversation comes drifting over the transom, ethnographic data for free.
Here’s a fragment now:
20-something girl with mom, hands full:
Could you hit One for me?
Man, pushing button:
Oh! Thank you.
Learn some manners.
Man, I’d tell you to fuck yourself if my mom wasn’t with me.
(Overheard in New York City at 20th St & 1st Ave.)
New Yorkers survive the compression of urban life by agreeing to a set of rules. These rules allow an amazing mutuality. The other day I was walking from a train in Grand Central to the subway under Grand Central. It’s about a hundred yards. As you go down the stairs into the subway, a group moving 10 across slows and funnels to become a group moving 5 across. There was almost no room in front and almost no room beside. But I didn’t touch anyone and no one touched me. Miraculous.
But it doesn’t always go this well. Sometimes in the streets of New York, there is slippage. Rules are unclear. Interpretations are inconsistent. Differences flourish. Some New Yorkers exercise a courtly grace and solicitude. Others suffer the delusion that the city belongs to them alone, that there are no other New Yorkers. The sidewalks take on a "rock ’em sock ’em" roller derby quality.
In the conversation above, between two passengers in an elevator compartment, things start out well enough. Passenger 1 calls for Floor one. She puts this in the form of a question, and apparently Passenger 2 takes her at her word. When he complies, Passenger 2 believes himself in possession of a marker or a debt. What he hopes for, apparently, is a "thank you." In most cases this is how these debts are discharged.
But, no. Passenger 1 is not forthcoming. Passenger 2 reminds her of her debt by pretending that she has discharged it. "You’re welcome," he says. Passenger 1 tries to make amends: "Oh, thank you." But this is not enough. Passenger 2 is not mollified. The debt remains. "Learn some manners," he tells her. This is a calculated punishment. It says, in effect, you have no manners.
Now it is the turn of Passenger 1 to take umbrage. As a good New Yorker, she’ll be damned if she is going to take direction from a perfect stranger. Passenger 2 has overstepped his bounds, and now it’s his turn for punishment.
But there’s a problem. Passenger 1 is with her Mom. And this complicated things wonderfully, because mothers are the single most influential source of a child’s knowledge of, and instinct for, social rules. Changes are Passenger 1 believes that her mother will by unhappy with the punishment she wishes to unleash.
What to do?
Passenger 1 resorts to a strategy that is both crude and effective. It is the equivalent of covering her Mom’s ears. "Man, I’d tell you to fuck yourself if my mom wasn’t with me." Propriety is satisfied. Punishment is rendered. (I believe linguists would accept this as a case of diplomatic non-indexicality.)
We don’t know what happened next, but we can be certain that violence was out of the question. Passenger 2 gave Passenger 1 a "look," and the contretemps was over. The theater of disagreement is elastic enough to allow both parties to let fly and leave the field of combat with the sense that honor, their honor, has been satisfied.
If my way from Grand Central to the subway is governed by an invisible, unspoken, emergent order, there are lots of occasion in which the rules must be stated and upheld…and New Yorkers are just the people for the job.
For the "overheard in New York" website, and this conversation fragment, go here.