Earlier this morning, my daughter and I made a Target run, just across the street from our Brooklyn home. Normally bustling with activity, there is lately no more than a trickle of masked humans entering and exiting the urban mall where it’s located. Forget that the typology — the mall — was foreign to New York City for most of its against-the-grain existence. New Yorkers always favored the mom-and-pop store — the go-it-alone, anti-chain, anti-cookie-cutter, anti-establishment vendor — reflective, I think, of the independent spirit of its denizens. New Yorkers, if anything, wear their differences — their uniqueness — as badges of honor.
Well, it all went downhill after the first true chain store opened in the city, in 1996. I remember it — and our collective reaction — clearly. When it happened, most of us muttered to ourselves, “WTF?!”. The culprit, of all possible interlopers, was K-Mart. K-mart. And of all places, they chose to open in 19th century clothing pioneer A.T. Stewart’s erstwhile ‘Marble Palace’, on Astor Square, in the East Village. It was fitting. Stewart’s was truly the first department store in the nation, and one of the first three in the world, with Au Bon Marché in Paris and Whiteley’s in London — presaging retail’s transformation from a constellation of unconnected, specialized vendors to a one-stop-shop, much like K-Mart itself. When it was built in 1848, Stewart’s, it could be said, presaged the demise of the small business.
Well, it’s only accelerated since.
Shortly after K-Mart’s success, Home Depot was right on its tail, on West 23rd Street. I remember that one, too. Home Depot? Another WTF. From there, it all fell apart: fashion, housewares, food… it all went the way of the chain. Eventually, even stalwart NYC businesses — those one-off bastions of localized uniqueness — joined the fray, franchising and installing themselves in every corner of the city. Zabaar’s crossed town, Citarella went downtown, Sarabeth’s proliferated, Bloomingdale’s took over Soho, Barneys dipped a toe in Brooklyn (I mean, really?), and New York went from a city of destination retail to a sanitized, ubiquitous and utterly generic shopping experience. Apart from the buildings and the outsized personalities, you could be anywhere. Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue, the Meatpacking District, Soho… all the same sh*t.
But I digress.
Today’s thoughts have nothing to do with the death of New York retail, except as the setting. I just needed to get it off my chest; thanks for that. So this morning, we walked into the mall across from our building. I’ve been in New York long enough for the m-word to still make me cringe. But there it is: convenient as hell, and literally 60 feet from our doorway. We have a Trader Joe’s, a Century 21 (once also a uniquely NYC one-off, before they, too, diluted and replicated; Bay Ridge?! WTF?), an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a food hall filled with micro-outposts of many famous food vendors, and of course, the Target.
We needed Kleenex and dishwashing pods. Where else to get them at 7am?! Oh, the convenience… So there we were, around 7:30am, approaching the street entrance when a physically commanding woman carrying a folding chair she’d just purchased there came charging out of the door that another woman — a wisp of a human — had thoughtfully stopped to open for her. My daughter, Mia, and I watched as this hellbent figure smacked straight into the other woman, not only not thanking her for her kindness, but nearly knocking her over in the process, and further not apologizing for doing that. The three of us were gobsmacked.
I turned to Mia and said to her, “Civility is on its deathbed.”
I could’ve projected all sorts of scenarios onto the scene, but the truth is, I have no idea why the woman reacted as she did. What I do know is that once she knocked the woman over and continued to stomp away without so much as looking back, I decided that there was no way she was unaware that she had just clocked another human. So we have one person opening the door for another in an act of civility, and the other taking full advantage of the kindness without an expression of thanks, and in the process returning the gesture with a form of physical abuse.
She’s not alone.
I’ve maligned the death of chivalry for years. I perpetually stand on the outside of sidewalks, not just for women, but for men, as well. I’ve been doing that so long, that I feel odd if I’m on the inside. I open doors. I scoot in first in taxis so women don’t have to do that in high heels, skirts and with the handbags that they perennially haul with them. I say thank you, and please, and look people in the eye when I speak to them. The only time I’m on bad behavior is when I’m driving. I can’t stand slow drivers. I turn into Beelzebub.
Everyone has their weakness.
Regardless, I have taught my children about what true gentlemen do; that when you find someone with manners, it counts; and that when you don’t, it means they don’t value civility, which should stand as a red flag. In some parts of the country — namely the Midwest — manners still exist, by and large. For me, chivalry isn’t an antiquated notion about the strength of men and the frailty of women. Far from it, it’s a set of principles related to living in large urban centers full of people in a perpetual rush who don’t engage with one another, beyond our transactional needs. I do these things for men and women alike. Sometimes, in an elevator, I have gotten into a back-and-forth with another man who insists I exit first. Often, our impasses outlast the open door. In a casualty of war, back up we go…
Civility is a code of conduct that allows strangers to interact by injecting generosity, kindness and courtesy into our daily lives. If nothing else, it makes life more pleasant for everyone. Except that as a set of behaviors, it is so impoverished — so rare, these days — that many, if not most, people don’t even notice anymore when it is being performed.
Perhaps 9 out of ten times when I open a door for someone, they don’t acknowledge it. That either means that they didn’t notice it, for want of being distracted — usually by the phone their eyes are glued to; or it’s an unfamiliar gesture to them; or they recognized but don’t value it, or think it’s important to acknowledge the act. Who knows? What it does make clear is that the onetime penchant we all shared for social decorum isn’t what it used to be.
In fact, it may be dead, like records — there as a mere trifle for the cognoscenti.
Last November, I wrote an obituary for etiquette. It’s such a rarity these days, that while the piece was tongue-in-cheek, the message was very sincere. Because every single act we carry out produces consequences for — influences — others, we either put goodness into the world, or malevolence. To knock someone over, you have to be angry. To be angry, you have to have been hurt. To have been hurt, you have to have reacted to something someone else did — to you. See how this works? We kick the can down the road. Every act of kindness is more likely to produce another, much as violence is more likely to beget violence. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The true consequence of civility is that people act more civilly to one another. Look at Trump. He’s given every American — and many global despots, and would-be villains — permission to be ugly people. He’s cited frequently by others looking to justify wrongdoing. We affect one another. The death of civility is something to be alarmed about. There are real consequences at stake.
When you shove another human who did nothing to warrant it, they are more likely to be in a bad mood, as a result. When they interact with others, they are less likely to be civil, either by repeating the gesture (I don’t want to get clocked again) or by carrying a sullen energy into everything else they do, until they recover. They may even lose their own temper and pass on the psychological attack. None of this is uncommon. I went down the rabbit hole on The (Real) Butterfly Effect earlier this summer.
Anger is understandable. We all feel pain sometimes, some more frequently and severely than others. Besides, we are not all brought up to value manners, or etiquette; some see it as quaint and useless. Except that I’ve already explained the true value of acts of civility. It is in creating a better world — a place of tolerance, gratitude, kindness, morality, and connection.
Who doesn’t want that?
Everyone wants to feel connected, just as everyone appreciates kindness, would rather live in a moral place, wants to feel valued, and accepted. These words represent ideals. How do we achieve these ideals if we do not practice them? How do we practice them if we are not taught them? How do we teach them if there’s no one left who values them? The race to the bottom is short, and fast.
I advocate civility. I think children should be taught it in class, and be able to see evidence of it in their own homes, and in their social environments. I believe we are what we do; and we do what we value. So if we don’t value civility, we won’t be civil; and we may as well start wearing football gear and carrying defensive weaponry when we walk. Because there have been times and places, not too long ago, where to walk the streets was to take your life in your own hands. Once clocking strangers who open doors becomes tolerated, it’s a short step to a fist fight, then a fight with weapons.
That’s not my world. And I hope it’s not yours, either. To paraphrase and redirect one of Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous statements, it won’t be, if we are the civility that we wish to see in the world.