I am not a great fan of rules, but I can appreciate how they keep society functioning. Flexibility is wonderful. Lawlessness is not. I prefer not to be shot, stabbed, robbed or killed. I prefer not to be run over by a truck. Eaten by a lion. Things of that nature.
In my own house, I’d rather do what comes naturally like a lion in the savannah. Roaming around at my leisure. Munching on the local offerings. Resting on soft spots. Bah. Rules. Who has need of such things in your own natural environment?
For the last year, we have had to learn New York City’s unwritten rules in order to try to blend in a bit. They are many and varied. The city only seems vast and unloving when you don’t know the many silent codes you need to know to get along. They go like this:
1. Always wear black. Are you wearing black like Hamlet? No? Go back inside. Come back out again wearing black. Better.
2. Do not talk to strangers on the subway. It’s a natural thing to want to reach out to your fellow man. Southerners, even ones with shyness in their DNA like me, feel the need to reach out to their fellow man. But the unspoken message is clear. Put a lid on it. Don’t get your crazy on me, New Yorkers advise me with their silence. It’s weird to be in a subway car full of people who sit so silently. It’s odd to be crowded and alone at once. Get used to it.
3. Don’t talk to strangers on elevators. In our apartment building, the code of silence on elevators is pretty strictly enforced. I find myself stifling a comment I would make without reservation back in the South. There is a long moment when the elevator has arrived at my floor, and it ponders opening. This can seem to last for half an hour. I want to bid my fellow passengers a good day. But I don’t know them. We are clothed in silence, wearing it like an extra layer of protection against the chilly weather and unknown drama of people we do not know. I yearn to strip down to my underwear. (I mean that figuratively, of course. Not like my dad used to do around the house on hot summer nights when my sister and I squirmed and moaned at the sight of him. “Please put some pants on,” we would ask. “This is my house,” he would say. “I don’t have to wear pants in my house.” He took the lion in the savannah notion to the extreme in my opinion. OK, I thought. When it’s my house and I’m all grown up, I’ll just stalk around not wearing pants either. Then I thought, gross. I’ll certainly never do that. And I don’t.)
There are exceptions to any rule, and the exceptions to the elevator rule include babies and pets. If you see a baby in a baby carriage, you are allowed to make any number of comments about who the baby looks like and what the baby is doing and how cute the baby is. If you notice a small dog licking at your heels, you are allowed to ask what kind of breed its is and what its name is. You are allowed to bend and pet the dog and let the dog lick all over your face. Dogs are great things to have if you are in an elevator in New York City. When we got our dog last November, we suddenly discovered this loophole to the Elevator Code of Silence and have been enjoying it ever since. You are also allowed to talk to strangers in dog parks and while walking your dog as your dog and another dog stop to sniff each others nether regions. You can find out each the name of each others’ dogs, but my wife reports that asking for and giving the dog owners name is a violation exception of the rule in certain dog parks.
4. Don’t make eye contact with people or strangers (which includes broadly all people who might turn out to be crazy) That is a crazy tattoo. I have never seen piercings in those places. Why the blue hair? Never mind those thoughts and questions running through your mind. Eyes straight forward, mister. As Dory the fish said in the movie Nemo, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.” Do not stop to stare. Keep on moving through the crowd.
5. Dress for worst case scenario weather not for what the weather is in that exact moment you leave the apartment. The sudden downpour and the quickly moving cold front are your worst enemy in New York City. You don’t want to tote around an umbrella all day on the off chance of a rain storm. On the other hand, when the sky opens up and starts pouring buckets of rain on you and the other millions of pedestrians on the sidewalk, not having an umbrella makes you look like an idiot. Tourists and city newbies scatter like rats in these downpours looking for safe harbor. Flooding into Starbucks and doughnut shops where they get fat on lattes and pastry because they have to justify their presence in the shop somehow and atone for dripping all over the floor.
Avery and I shrugged off the notion of wearing jackets once on a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend only to return shivering and hugging each other until we made it back into an apartment. The wind had been calm and we were bathed in sunlight when we left on our walk. It got a few degrees colder and the wind picked up a bit. The gusts of wind that use the natural alleyways created by tall buildings on each side of the street as wind tunnels in New York are the difference between a slightly chilly day in which a t-shirt is tolerable and a freezing one in which a hoodie is your new best friend.
Equally important is having the right kind of umbrella on a crowded city sidewalk. Most umbrellas have spokes that poke out. These fit nicely into the eyes of strangers trying to pass on the right and left of you. Better to have a more prophylactic umbrella that protects you from the rain and passersby from an unwelcome poke in the eye. When in close quarters and passing others with regular umbrellas, you should raise your umbrella high above your hide, at least high enough that no one gets poked.
Remember, no matter what you do to run afoul of local sensibilities you are going to be fine. If you happen to offend one New Yorker, there are millions more you have never offended. Now, go mingle. You know, appropriately. Why are you standing against a wall all by yourself? Do that crazy dance you do. Everyone loves it. That should do the trick.