Sign of the Times, Just Rude … or Both?

I have played Mr. Nice Guy about New York City for almost a year now, and that has been genuine. I actually do enjoy living here. At times though, it’s like being a menhaden or other schooling fish. You go where the other fish go and try to stay out of their way when they, driven by mysterious forces, suddenly decide to change direction. If you prefer a flocking bird metaphor, that’s fine too.

So, it’s time to unload a few frustrations. I’m pretty sure these are not unique to New York. I am reliably advised that Washington DC has similar issues but, having lived in the Virginia suburbs for several decades, I mostly steered clear of DC.

There are four things: blocking the sidewalk, wearing giant backpacks on the subway, removing shoes at the ballet and, last but certainly not least, making out during a Broadway show.

First, the sidewalks. Even people who’ve never been here have seen enough movies to know that NYC is crowded. There are people everywhere, often in large numbers, and they are usually in a hurry. Yesterday, a Sunday, the area around Macy’s and Herald Square was mobbed. I have written about the rushing before, but this issue is about … not rushing. It’s about people who are walking along and suddenly stop to look at a life-changing text message … or to send one they just thought of – or to catch up on the news, or, more likely, to check again since the last time five minutes ago to see if a friend has posted anything new on Facebook or Instagram. These people seem to be oblivious to the fact that there are other people trying to use the same sidewalk to which they have now staked an adverse possession (legal term, sorry) claim. Another variation occurs at the city’s numerous hotels when departing guests, waiting for their rides, park their suitcases in the middle of the sidewalk while they chat, smoke or, yet again, check their phones for incoming messages of earth-shattering importance while ignoring the other pedestrians just trying to get somewhere. There oughta be a law.

Second, I get the idea that people want to carry a lot of stuff when moving around the city. People need their work papers and, of course, laptops, iPads and other “devices.” I also see a lot of water bottles (in case there is a water shortage) and enough “stuff” to support a Himalayan expedition. If you have to carry all that stuff, take the damn thing off and place it between your feet or clutch it to your chest. Anything but occupying the space of two people when, as is often the case, there is only room for one-half a person in the first place. I think the city should revise its passenger counts for subway usage to include an extra person for every large backpack. The data would then show that more people used the subway than could possibly fit in the total available space unless they were stacked in their like logs. Well, they often are.

Third, and now we’re getting down to the serious stuff, there is removal of shoes at the ballet. Admittedly, I have only seen this once (at Lincoln Center, mind you; Lincoln Center!!), but it has stuck with me like a bad dream ever since:

I suspect this person was sending the message, “see my damaged feet? I’m a dancer too.” But, to quote Rhett Butler, frankly, madam, I don’t give a damn. I didn’t pay all that money to look at your bare feet during the performance.  Or during intermission, or any other time, for that matter. Keep your bare feet to yourself. Please!

Finally, and this one was probably more disturbing than the others combined because it went on, and on …  and on. We went to see the Broadway musical King Kong. I wrote a blog post about the show which was wonderful. The couple sitting in front of us, estimated to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s, could not keep their hands off of each other. They were snuggling, kissing and hugging, and whispering in each other’s ears, throughout the show. He repeatedly put his arm around her, then after a bout of whatever, made a big show of removing his arm, swinging it up in front of my face.

They were oblivious to everyone around them, implying that they behave this way in public all the time. Yet, every time Kong appeared or did something spectacular, the young man hooted and yelled like he was in a country bar. And the guy was incredibly tall so all the sideways movement as he and his lovely came together and separated left me constantly shifting in my seat to see around his moving head. The people behind me could not have been happy either. Then, at the end of the show and while the curtain was still descending, the pair was out of their seats like a shot, not willing to take even a minute to participate in the standing ovation so richly deserved by the cast.

So, there it is. I feel better. I think. Maybe not. Continuing the Gone With the Wind theme, Vivien Leigh famously said, “tomorrow is another day.” It is, but will it be better? It will. We have tickets to The Band’s Visit and the Nutcracker. And it’s a new ballet season. Does Amazon sell blinders for humans?

Hey, I’m Driving Here!

I recently returned from a trip to Honolulu. I had accompanied my wife who was making a speech at a conference there. Tough duty, but someone had to do it.

My wife began her speech by suggesting that, contrary to what instinct tells us, Honolulu and New York City have a number of things in common. Both are on islands, both have tall buildings and both have lots of tourists. And both have poke shops. Poke, for the uninitiated, is pronounced “po kay” with the accent on ‘po’. It is a

“preparation of chopped fish, seasoned with sea salt dried in the sun; limu (seaweed), giving it another layer of texture and flavor; and inamona (roasted and crushed kukui nut, or candlenut), lending an oily richness.”

That, according to CNN Travel. https://cnn.it/2KK4LJE Also per CNN, with whom I am loathe to argue, on this subject at least,

“the most popular poke these days is cubed, raw tuna tossed with soy sauce, sesame oil, raw onions, scallions and red chilies, but Hawaii’s seafood counters offer plenty of variety. Flavorings may include wasabi, spicy mayo, kimchi or oyster sauce, and the seafood ranges from salmon to clams to raw, chopped crab — shell and all.”

Re eating chopped crab shells, to each his own, I suppose. The real point is that there are poke restaurants here and there in New York City.

There is, on the other hand, a fundamental distinction between Honolulu and New York City. I refer to the habit of drivers in The City, to honk their horns incessantly at the slightest provocation or, in many observed cases, no provocation at all. The honking goes on 24 hours a day in some parts of town. You will not, however, find this in Honolulu. The aloha spirit has imbued Hawaiians with an innate resistance to honking their horns and engaging in the practice is seriously frowned upon.

You, no doubt, will immediately think of other distinctions between Honolulu and New York City, but for present purposes, stick with me on horn honking. Because the practice is virtually universal among NYC drivers and intrudes into your unprotected consciousness whether you want it to or not. Like unprotected sex, the effects of prolonged exposure to horn honking can stay with you for a long while. After a few months of this punishment, I concluded that the practice warranted some deeper thought.

For example, under what circumstances and for what purposes, do New York City drivers honk their horns? Are there different honking techniques that signify something that is worth knowing or at least attending to? Herewith the answers you’ve been waiting for.

Circumstances first. Based on extensive, though obviously not scientific, observation, horn honking in NYC has become an autonomous response to driving in traffic. It happens for reasons about which I suspect many perpetrators are unaware. They may even be unaware that they have honked. It just seems to happen.

I have seen/heard vigorous, often extended honking (as in, minutes of uninterrupted beeeeeeeeping) when:

  • Light changes and car in front hesitates one second before moving out
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing against the light
  • Car is approaching pedestrians crossing with the light
  • Turning vehicle is blocked by pedestrians exercising their right-of-way; driver behind goes berserk
  • Traffic moving too slow
  • Traffic not moving
  • Vehicles stopped to let out/take in passengers
  • Vehicle changing lanes, with or without signal
  • Street fair — traffic not moving at all [9th Avenue shut down as I write, cross streets at a standstill & horns a’blazing. Note: street fairs are common on NYC weekends, yet each time seems like the first time for many drivers]
  • Vehicle is blocking an intersection — the worst offense; serious serial and continuous honking follows

Those situations share some common features, the clearest of which is futility. Nothing much changes in response to the honking, except the relative peace and quiet of the immediate vicinity.

And, honkers, especially the taxi drivers which seem omni-present throughout the congested parts of The City, appear to simply honk out of frustration, not really expecting any behavior to change. Honkees, understanding that there is not much they can realistically do to relieve the honker’s frustration, simply ignore the honking. Everyone seems to understand this and yet the honking continues.

As for the deeper causes, well, that’s complicated. Watching a lot of people repeat a behavior with no apparent hope of seeing anything change is itself somewhat disturbing. Pedestrians here, officially, have the right-of-way. They know it and, being New Yorkers or tourists unaware of their surroundings, exercise it.

Commonly, a car will approach an intersection green light with turning signal on and pedestrians, also with the green light, will just walk right out in front of the car. It is unusual for that first car to honk at the pedestrians who, after all, have, officially, the right-of-way, which fact everyone knows and more-or-less accepts, unless they don’t. But the second car in line, as suggested in the above list, often lays into the horn, knowing full-well that the pedestrians are not going to hurry, at least no more than “New York normal,” to clear a path for the cars and that the car in front is helpless to change that. It’s as if the second driver simply wants everyone to know:  I’m here and I’m not happy!

And maybe that’s the root of the matter. In the overcrowded, seemingly indifferent world of urban living, people just want their existence and their suffering to be acknowledged. They honk to say “hey, I’m driving here!” Compare Dustin Hoffman’s famous line in Midnight Cowboy.

The problem is compounded by modern technology. Look at any crowd on the street and chances are a large percentage will be using some form of sound-blocking or displacement technology. This technology enables pedestrians to block out much of the urban background noise by either streaming music directly into the ears or enabling a conversation to occur with another person elsewhere. The telltale clue are the now ubiquitous earphone wires or the white wireless “ear plugs” sold by Apple. It is also common to see young people with full size noise-cancelling headphones made by Bose, Beat and others. These devices permit a degree of near total dissociation from everyone around the wearer.

No wonder drivers feel they are not being acknowledged. Their only hope is to sound blast their way through the resistance forces thrown up against them by modern technology. So, in the end, the cause of much of the honking in New York City may simply be traceable to the isolationist tendencies of young people selfishly seeking solitude among the chaos that surrounds them. I knew it was them all along.