On Civility in Public Space, or On Ethics & Johnsons

I had an interesting encounter last week. It was Saturday morning and I'd just dropped my boy off at his hip hop dance class (yes, you heard me) and headed to this incredible coffee shop up the block to read while I waited for his class to end. What makes this coffee shop different than others in this ridiculous city by the bay, among other things, is that no one is on a laptop. People of various ages and ethnicities sit, eat pie (it's called Mission Pie), drink coffee and....wait for it...talk to each other. There are even communal tables where I usually find myself putting my book down to talk to a stranger. Egad!

Anyway, I was standing on the corner waiting to cross the street to go to the café when an older man with a walker, standing some distance away, called to me and asked if I could help him cross the street. Of course I would. He moved very, very slowly; there is no possible way he'd ever cross 25th and Mission without getting hit, yelled or honked at. I stood in the road, put up my hands, and held multiple lines of traffic while he crossed.

Now, this is not what's interesting. Hold on.

So he crosses the street and then heads to the very café I'm going to. I hold the door for him. It's rainy and the place is crowded. I ask if he needs help sitting; he does. I position a chair under him, hold his weight as he lowers himself; I then scoot his chair under the table. This is rather intimate. As the line is long, I ask if I can get him what he wants. Yes, he says, a glass of milk and a slice of banana cream pie.

Wait. This is not yet what's interesting.

The line is long but eventually I return to him and our section of the communal table, our goods in tow. There are two pretty women at the end of the table talking to each other. In fact, there are a lot of attractive women there. But this man wants to talk. He's not that old but he's clearly medicated and tells me as much. He repeats himself often. His voice is low and I have to lean in to hear him.

He asks, jokingly, if I'd been a boy scout. Then he asks if I'd like to come over some time (apparently, he lives in some kind of communal home). This is where things get interesting to me. Rather than explain to him the myriad reasons why I have no desire whatsoever to visit him at his home, I give him a phone number — not my number but a number.

The fact is, I always ask people who I think might need some help if they do, indeed, need said help. I ask blind people, old people, people in wheelchairs if they need help getting where they're going. I never sit on the train if others are standing. I never budge on line. But I don't do this because I'm a good person. I'm not. I'm not a bad person, either. It's just that I don't believe in good people and bad people — although I do believe in assholes, douchebags, and Johnsons.

The reason I do all these seemingly good deeds is not because I believe in the good but because I want the social order to run without invading my world. That is, if things collapse, my life becomes much more difficult. The whole damn thing seems so precarious, the social hung together with gossamer that's always on the brink of fraying. And then what'll I do?

No, I want the social to hum along and leave me the fuck alone. And so, yes, I help old and blind people; I respect line etiquette; I hold doors and let drivers into my lane. But that's because I don't want to go to their houses, because I don't want to be part of some bullshit community that, deep down, doesn't want me as a member.

And so I have no desire to help this man with his palpable, heart wrenching loneliness. I only want to help him cross the street and get his banana cream pie. Which is to say, I only want to help him in public. That is the realm of the ethical. Beyond that, we enter a different territory of the good (as distinct from the propitious). I am all for someone having this morality and visiting this old man, hugging him occasionally, maybe even sexually pleasuring him. But that is another realm, another imperative (pace Kant).

For me, I honor the code of the Johnson: mind my own fucking business but don't watch a drowning man drown. I don't want the intimacy of strangers — neither their kindness nor their wrath. I want their general indifference to me while respecting the common space. I don't need smiles or pleasantries, that American facade that masks fear and loathing. I just want everyone to recognize public space for what it is and not be a total douche if an old man needs a chair. Otherwise, I pretty much just want to be left the fuck alone. 

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