Bent over backwards
You can drop the attitude. You only work in a shop, you know.
Jennifer Saunders, “Absolutely Fabulous”
“Next person on line.”
One little preposition; one big difference. At places of business in the Midwest, I wait in line. Usually in comfort. My fellow customers and I line up and conclude our business in succession. When greeting employees with a smile, they generally smile in turn. Rude interactions are once-in-a-blue-moon incidents.
I hear the phrase “next on line” and I know I’m not in the Midwest any longer. I’m on another planet.
Only on New York, I guess.
New York City has some 8,000 restaurants. It also has 13,000 registered taxis, 8 million residents, 60 million tourists each year, and what remains of one modest dream: to be treated like a human being by other human beings. Pigeons lack tact. Possums could benefit from some etiquette lessons and raccoons from charm school (or juvie). My expectations of Homo sapiens are understandably a little higher. Despite their modest nature, New York finds creative ways to not meet them. Its service industry, in most of its forms, epitomizes the dehumanization of it all quite well.
It took one face in Greece. It took one cow in Chicago. What did it take in New York? Was it a customer experimenting with misplaced aggression at the pharmacy one day? Or was it a server who, in a moment of madness, decided that his or her clientele boiled down to one half-witted cheapskate with many faces? However it came to be, buying toothpaste, returning a shirt, picking up a package, and dining out all have one thing in common here: an overall sense of being unwelcome and unwanted.
I’ll chalk it up to misguided mantras.
New York mantra #1: “You will never see any of these people ever again”
One of the oldest in the book. We’ve all used it for credit card declinations, Scarlet Letter-esque walks home, sidewalk tumbles, etc. In this city, it’s not so much a mantra as a truism. The man whose pot belly is smashed against you during the seemingly longest subway ride in the history of public transportation—the derelict spilling coffee on you without so much as a “my bad”—the stranger at the bar gravely orating on his comedy script—all will exit your New York experience, never to return.
This is nearly complete anonymity. Couple it with the bare-bones set of cultural norms possible in this haven of multiculturalism (e.g., walking on the right side of the sidewalk—in both senses of the word—is obviously not a worldwide rule of thumb), and you have New York’s service industry. Familiarness fosters accountability. Standard practices help us avoid snags and get on with our lives. Take these factors out of the equation in a service situation, and we’re left with an unsolvable, scribbly mess of frustration on both sides. The Chinese couple seated at your table prior to your arrival didn’t tip a thin dime, but guess who gets that chip on your server’s shoulder right in the face? Your draught beer has a phlegmy glob of something (the server claims it’s barley but the jury looks skeptical—and nauseous) midway through it? No big deal. After all, your server, her manager, and the owner will never see you ever again. The number of returning customers this establishment accommodates is about as small as a gelatinous blob of “barley”. You will fade away from them and their complete indifference as quickly as, well, you can run away from that beer.
New York mantra #2: “You get what you pay for”
Do you know any good restaurants? is a question my students ask me on a weekly basis. I imagine I have the same perplexed look on my face when answering my favorite Are you and your twin brother identical?, minus the cringe. Yes, I know some good restaurants. What I don’t know is how much you’re willing to fork over to push your fork around. I don’t know if you realize that you get what you pay for resonates here more than any other place I’ve ever spent time in.
Some jackass must have shouted it from the rooftops.
New York’s list of service options is easy to draw up:
3. Some strange combination of the above
Either you buy cosmetics from stone-faced pharmacy employees who stoically deflect your smile and greetings, as statues are wont to do, or buy something exorbitant and French from a “consultant” whose smile looks about as genuine as Central Park. Either you dine surrounded by white aprons and amuse-bouches (prepare your wallet and nose beforehand), or by underpaid servers as transient as their client base who consider bringing cutlery to your table cruel and unusual.
This lose-lose principle spills over into most realms, even the most basic. Anyone considering a quiet coffee with personal space should know that such things have a price in this town. (It’s the same principle underlying extra leg room on flights.) Anyone on a budget in search of quiet, coffee, and personal space should consider moving elsewhere.
New York mantra #3: “If at first you don’t succeed…”
…shout, shout again.
I have been more horrified more times by fellow customers than by any service provider. New Yorkers patronize like they drive: they honk (repeatedly) first and ask questions later (minus the question-asking bit). Their treatment of service staff is reminiscent of housebreaking cats. When kitty (either floutingly or forgetfully) makes a mess on the carpet, rub kitty’s nose in it and yell; repeat. When one individual employee provides some misinformation at the airport, choose a different, innocent employee and harangue,
“See this? [point to ticket] They said this was my terminal. See this? See this? [point to monitor] That’s a different terminal. They’re different. Now I’m late. Look at my ticket! No! Listen to me. Look at it. See this? [point to ticket] They said this was my terminal. See this?”
Rapid speech causes confusion; repetition, annoyance; combined they create a customer so obnoxious that, in the end, they get their way for no other reason than to send them on their merry way. The most disconcerting part in my eyes is that their departure is merry. The anger that seconds before seemed to gush forth from the very core of their beings is reduced to a trickle as they walk away, unfazed by their own brutality. The brutality was effective and therefore immediately forgiven here, this city built on endless means to endless (but usually predictable) ends.
Take a page from the Midwest’s book, New York. It’s not Emily Post; it’s basic humanity.
Midwestern mantra #1: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”
Let’s face it: despite the catchy proverb, we often judge books by their covers. If a cat, a tube of lipstick, or a high heel is featured on a book cover—especially if all three of said items make an appearance—I’m out. But New Yorkers have taken the cat-lipstick-heel principle a bit too far. Service providers here use fingernails, bags, and shoes as checkpoints when evaluating a customer’s potential for profit, and unfortunately use this information to determine how much kindness and care to invest in them.
When visiting the Midwest now, I’m overcome with guilt of unknown origin when a server is unnecessarily kind to me, whether I’m dressed to impress or in sweats. The guilt snowballs when I realize that that thought in and of itself is evidence of New York’s questionable influence.
Midwestern folk, believe it or not, are nice even when they don’t have to be. Even when their kindness is not included in the price of the steak. Even when their last customer was a curmudgeon who had unceremoniously buried his heart along with his youth long ago. They are nice because being nice is their standard point of departure with whoever may rear an appealing or appalling head in their establishment.
For them, courtesy is free of charge because it has no monetary value.
Midwestern mantra #2: “Kill ‘em with kindness”
What New Yorkers accomplish with eternal tirades, most Midwesterners accomplish with a wink and a smile.
Persistence has its place, as do raised voices. Raising one’s voice ad nauseam over the price of a cup of coffee, however, lacks dignity and integrity, and Midwesterners know it. Accomplishing a goal by any means necessary often devalues the goal, and Midwesterners would rather leave empty-handed than compromise their definition of themselves as fundamentally good people.
While bearing reluctant witness to a tenant rubbing her doorman’s nose in the dirt one morning, I realized Midwesterners generally used her tone when scolding pets, not people. Denying anyone their humanity over a misplaced phone message is taking the role of bad cop—even if it is just a role—to a moral no man’s land of this city’s own creation. I don’t plan on visiting.
Separated, I would put my money on the good cop outperforming the bad cop, anyway.
Midwestern mantra #3: “Let them eat cake”
Oddly enough, middle ground is much more expansive in the Midwest. New York’s juxtaposition of heaven and hell leaves no space for any sort of purgatory—if we define purgatory as moderate expense for an immoderately enjoyable experience. There are countless ways to tap into that joie de vivre the French are always harping on in the Midwest, without either proffering your first-born or rubbing elbows with cockroaches. Personal space and politeness aren’t relegated to a single social class there.
Diners leave huge tips on huge bills in this city; and while I admire the mathematical precision, I am much more impressed by the Midwest’s inexplicable kindness-without-incentive approach. By and large, my tips there are bigger and out of gratitude, not moral obligation.
Chomping on the cake I can both have and eat in the Midwest, New York’s famous black-and-white cookie starts to make more and more sense.
an ashen apple mantra: “The exception that proves the rule confusing”
Contexts extract certain qualities from people and bury others. The overrun beehive that is this city may produce a lot of honey, but the worker bees, drones, and queens alike have stopped recognizing each other as being of the same species. Maybe human beings aren’t cut out for hive life. Maybe so many people in such a sticky, small space leads to buried compassion and cultivated detachment.
That said, the New Yorkers who choose to bend over backwards instead of out of shape make up the exceptions and the exceptional of this city. I have glimpsed in them a humanity bigger than context.