As you get older, it should become easier to compartmentalize when someone is rude. The wisdom and perspective of advanced age ideally would reinforce the simple truth that instances of inappropriate or harsh behavior are things that just happen, and that can’t be prevented. You can’t control someone else’s mood, no more than they can influence the way you behave. It’s an immutable law of existence that everyone you meet is a potential landmine that could explode if you step the wrong place.
Unfortunately, a few gray hairs on your head aren’t a complete protection from those less graceful among us. On a recent trip to New York, I found my eyes lock with a fellow passenger, resplendent in a tattered New York Yankees jacket and a single booger hanging from his right nostril.
As a grateful resident of Los Angeles, I didn’t realize that eye contact is the universal symbol for “fuck you” on the East Coast. Yankee Fan with the booger silently mouthed the word “What” and gestured like an extra from Goodfellas, as though he wanted to rumble or something. He was lucky that mine was the next stop and I left my rumbling shoes in the hotel room.
I couldn’t quite decide if I was at fault or Yankee Fan was. My first instinct was to say that he drummed up the potential conflict by sending aggressive gestures my way in a cramped space. That’s the simple, myopic interpretation. From his perspective, I must have seemed like a true creep, with my shifty eyes and preoccupation with his right nostril.
Perhaps he knew about the booger, but couldn’t dislodge it in public. That would mean he’d have to ride the G-train in the guise of a complete social pariah. That would put anyone on edge, I think.
Of course, for all he knew, I could have just wanted to admire his jacket, which had a patch for every Yankee World Series victory. That’s 27 patches, and I wasn’t even leaving Brooklyn, so I had to hurry up to see each one.
I wanted to apologize for giving offense. Saying you’re sorry is the first sign of a highly polite individual, so it struck me as a great time to throw down a charm offensive. Just as I was about to approach Yankee Fan, I changed my mind.
It struck me that graciousness and social propriety requires all peoples to agree to adhere to specific guidelines in order for those rules to have any meaning. If enough people all decided that red means “go,” yellow means “stop,” and green means “turn off your car, remove all your clothes, and play a 2 Pac song on your iPhone,” we’d absolutely have a lot more accidents… and a lot more public nudity.
Yankee Fan had already broken the rule that says that accidental eye contact is not an aggressive gesture. He also broke the rule that says your nostrils should not have any visible boogers in them. This was not a guy to be reasoned with, so why bother?
I guess you bother because you hope to impart some of that aforementioned wisdom on them. Like anything, I learned how to be polite by failing numerous times. I’m pretty sure I had to fart in public when I was three to learn not to do it. Rules of behavior are not legislated or enforced by the government. There’s no clear penalty for being a jerk. The only way to coerce people into respecting each other is to demand it.
If I had to do it over again, I guess I would confront Yankee Fan and explain that he was overreacting to my eye contact. I’d tell him that by and large, looking at someone is not a sign that you are a hostile individual. I’d council him to smile more often, hold doors open for old ladies, make interesting small talk, tip generously, and call his mother more than once a month. She’s probably very lonely and misses his voice. Maybe he could even tell her about the obnoxious guy who gave him a bunch of very valuable life advice on the subway.
Oh, and I almost forgot to say that I would encourage him to blow his nose. That would be the kindest mercy of them all.