I still get all red-faced and flummoxed when I think back to the first time I ever made the mistake of holding the door open for someone in San Diego. I cannot for the life of me remember where I was (this was years ago), but I do remember that the door was one of those heavy byproducts of industrialized bureaucracy that will forever conjure the hallways of public school in my mind’s nostalgia. The ones with the metal bar across the midsection that opens with a thwack when one leans into it. Are you picturing it? So as I’m exiting the building, I thwack the sucker open, pass over the threshold, and let my fingers linger on the door in the universal — or so I thought — gesture that I was passing the weight onto the person behind me. Only that person just walked right on through. Like some dim-witted highfalutin lord, so oblivious to the toil of his servants that he thinks doors open by magic in his path. So did the next person. And the next. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked me in the eye. It was like they didn’t even know how. I finally let the weight of the door go. It swung and thwacked into a girl too mascara deep in the cat video on her phone to see the giant thing coming. She called me an “asshole.” I hissed at her, but really, I was hissing at everyone.
Maybe I’m still hissing. Maybe this story about a door justifies my dismay at an imagined transgression. Perhaps I am just hissing into the wind. It doesn’t matter, because nothing can stop me from using it as a launching point for a conversation about manners, politeness, and how we treat strangers. It’s time we had a come-to-Jesus moment, San Diego. Y’all are rude.
I admit that it very well could be me. Perhaps after a youth spent sippin’ sweet tea and saying “Yes, ma’am” in the land of Southern hospitality, my calibration is all askew and poorly tuned. But you have to understand the discrepancies with which I’m having to come to terms. There, you smile, wave, and say hello to friends and strangers alike on the street. Here, I smile at someone on the street, and if they don’t simply pretend to not see me, they grimace and clutch their valuables tighter.
Just a couple of months back I had to get myself downtown to the First National Bank Center building to expedite a passport renewal. So, as I’m standing at a crosswalk on Columbia Street at 7 a.m., staring at the red hand and stifling my Tijuana-perfected proclivity for jaywalking, I look around to find something to daydream about. Even though I’m surrounded on all sides by the buzzing of self-important blowhards with their Bluetooth ear-pieces and half-empty briefcases, I manage to lock eyes with the well-to-do woman standing just next to me. I smiled at her and she looked away without so much as a facial twitch. I looked away and around until our eyes managed to meet again.
“Mornin’,” I said.
“I don’t have any money,” she blurted.
Where I hail from, if you ask for directions, it’s irrelevant how ignorant the beseeched-upon party may be of the local geography, for it’s only a matter of time before getting you there is a team effort with a group of strangers arguing over which shortcut is the shortest. Here, it’s almost like directions are a secret that are to be guarded behind a wall of feigned ignorance and disdain.
I’m not making this up. I live in TJ, cross rarely, and have no access to a computer that tells me where to turn while I’m driving. As a result, there is a 100 percent chance that I will be lost for at least a handful of minutes every time I come to San Diego. In the no fewer than 20 different people I have asked for navigational help, I have received one of two answers only: “I don’t know,” which is ironclad in its desired effect of getting rid of me, and “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?” to which I reply that I don’t have one, to which the entreated upon shrugs before shoving the earbud back into his head. And these aren’t complicated or obscure directions I’m after. When I asked a Point Loma gas station attendant on Catalina Boulevard if he could point me in the direction of Ocean Beach, he shrugged his shoulders. In a La Jolla Home Depot, I asked a beard with an orange apron attached to it if he could tell me roughly how to get to Interstate 5. He said that he could not. I have since purchased a map.
I could say that I am projecting all of that which I find unacceptable about myself onto my environment in a narcissistic tantrum of indignant flailing and self-righteous screaming. But I’m not going to.
Nor am I insisting on politeness. Truly. I could argue the virtue of good manners over rudeness ad nauseum, but I possess neither the hubris nor the desire to get others to ascribe to my worldview. Plus, rudeness can be charming. Look at New York City. Rudeness is such a mythical part of Yankee culture that a surly turn of phrase goes hand-in-hand with a bad comedian’s shtick when he’s doing a New York accent. And it’s hard to have any qualms with New York’s commodified approach to strangers. All of the cards are on the table. If you don’t know how to cross the street, walk on the sidewalk, or order a sandwich when the deli is busy, the city is going to be rude at you, and you aren’t allowed to act like it isn’t on you. It’s a social contract. To be frank, New Yorkers go a long way toward proving something I was always taught growing up — if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.