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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quit Backin' Up

I've been noticing a disturbing pattern lately. Actually I've been noticing it for three or four years now, but it seems to have intensified lately.

What I'm seeing is good people retreating. Nice people are going into hiding, and right people are going mute.

I first started noticing this back in Milwaukee. I lived in a neighborhood that was struggling with gentrification. The residents were a mix of young white-collar professionals rehabbing old homes and duplexes, retired teachers maintaining homes they'd rehabbed in the 1960s, grad students renting out the rehabbed duplexes, stupid hippies with part-time jobs sharing rehabbed duplexes (15 to a bedroom), stupid hippies with no jobs crashing in the pads of the stupid hippies with jobs, gutter punks crashing w/each other in one-room efficiencies (20 to a room), artist types trying to make do in apartments and duplexes that hadn't been patched up yet, and all-purpose triflin' folk who weren't interested in doing anything but living, breathing, making other people's lives miserable, and generating more garbage.

It was gradual. People who took pride in their home's curb appeal stopped picking up trash in the yard. Why? They got tired. They got tired of taking care of their stuff and putting in extra work picking up what their lazy-a$$ed neighbor down the block tossed on the sidewalk and let blow into the proud resident's yard.

People who used to enjoy the ambiance of the neighborhood stopped taking casual strolls 'cause they felt intimidated by the obnoxious menacing teenagers on certain blocks who'd yell things at 'em and make 'em feel unwelcome.

City code enforcement workers who used to crack the whip in order to keep the neighborhoods clean stopped issuing tickets to the people leaving dangerous old furniture on the curb and blocking alleys with their cars. It was as if the enforcers just got tired of no one heeding the citations anyway.

Residents who used to sit on their balconies or front porches, soaking up the sounds of the block, quietly went inside their homes and closed the windows tight when their new next door neighbors began inconsiderately blasting their stereos.

And then I moved to South Florida. My disclaimer is I like it here. I chose to live here. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Anyway, I moved here a little more than a year ago and I found myself slipping into that trap. On the highway an aggressive driver would try to force themselves into my lane at the expense of my safety. And rather than hold my ground, I'd hit my breaks and move out of their the expense of the safety of the car right behind me.

I mentioned in a previous post, my wife and I would walk through the mall and oblivious human bulldozers would barrel between us as though they had every reason to expect us to make way.

The first time I cleaned the rear swale of my house and removed debris from Hurricane Wilma, a neighbor down the block tossed his debris in my space 'cause his space was full. I bit my tongue, telling myself "Maybe it was a one-time deal."

I can't work on my lawn the way I want when I want sometimes 'cause an inconsiderate neighbor has all her friends park at the curb in front of my lawn, nearly on my lawn sometimes, preventing me from mowing or trimming the edges. That curb's a no-parking zone. Do I complain to tax-paid city workers though? Nope. I subconsciously worry that I'll look like the jerk neighbor if I do.

My Slingblade neighbor three doors down blasts his stereo like clockwork for a couple of hours after work. I'd like to sit on my deck and play a few tunes and sip a cold beverage. Sometimes I can. But other times my low-volume music would get drowned out by Billy Bob's. I'd like to ask him neighbor-to-neighbor to turn his music down. But I don't do it. I worry that I'll look like the A-hole...and that maybe he's a little nuts.

I posted about a buddy who in a nightclub the other day was confronted by a menacing jerk, and a well-intentioned reader suggested my buddy not go to clubs anymore, so as to avoid the jerks.

I used to think giving way was simply civil behavior by the "good" guys. I don't think it is though. I think it's the good guys being wusses. Since when did it become kosher to humble yourself and give way to the mean, the rude, the inconsiderate, etc? Why should we stay home at night to avoid the misbehavers? What happened that they aren't afraid to act up in public places for fear that their bad behavior might get them banned or "excommunicated?"

Sure, there is the half-joke that you can't confront anyone these days, even if you're right 'cause you could get shot over it. But still, if we all made some sort of stand and told the jerks, "Hey, turn your crap down. Other people live around here too," they would back off and maybe start to feel a little shame over their actions. Maybe if we collectively stood our ground and didn't slow down to make room for that bad driver who tried to sneak up the service lane on the highway to bypass traffic, he would get the picture and start driving more responsibly. Maybe if we snapped on the woman in the grocery who cut us off and ran over our toes with her cart 'cause she was yappin' on the cell phone and not paying attention, she would be so mortified that she'd start to watch where she was going. Maybe if enough times we got in the face of the prima donna who lets her rat terrier poop in a public park and doesn't pick it up, she would become so shocked and embarassed she'd start leaving home with a plastic bag in hand.

I'm not suggesting we should try to be heroes, at the expense of personal safety. Use good sense. Don't get shot for being right. If you have a neighbor with a crazy look in his eyes, a nervous twitch, and a three-tiered gunrack in the back of his truck, maybe you should ask the cops to have him turn down his stereo.

But if the opportunity presents itself, speak up. Quit backing up. Quit retreating, because you don't want to be seen as contrary. The more ground we give, the more the knuckleheads are going to grow comfortable with their own behavior and assume that they're "normal," and the meek are the ones who are out of whack.


  • James, as author of Urban Etiquette, you've got your job cut out for you. Your observations are right on. In my day, a patron of a store would not think twice about giving you a stern look if you acted rudely. Today, the jerks have a righteous sense of self-entitlement that they justify by stating that everyone's rude to them. I think people back down because they never know what will trigger a looney-bin attack today. Look at your buddy at the bar the other day. He politely apologized for his error, and then had to deck the guy so he could get past him. It's easier to drop our heads and slink away with our tails between our legs and our dignity shot to hell than to confront someone and have them attack us ten times worse than what they originally did to us. Is that right? Nope. But it is EASIER, and easy is popular.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 3:24 PM  

  • Sometimes when you turn the other cheek, you get slapped on the other side. There's only so much slappin' one person can take.

    But in this day and age, you can't tell who is about to snap. You may make a polite suggestion to someone to change their behavior, and POW, they shoot you.

    I'd rather turn the cheek, and get slapped again, then die.

    But I guess you have to analyze each situation differently.

    If it's some nucklehead in the club. You're better to cut your losses. However, your neighbor is a different situation. You have to live with this person, and theoretically, you may have to rely on them at some point for a careful watch on your home...or some sugar. This is a converse relationship. If your neighbor is not smart enough to realize this, you have every right to make them aware of it. Just be polite, and maybe bring some moonshine.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:07 PM  

  • I was also reared to believe that the meek shall inherit the earth, but I was never was told when that's going to happen. I'm not getting any younger you know. I have had two wonderful next door neighbors since I moved to this area 20 years ago. They were smart, politically astute, and owned power tools that I did not already have. My new neighbor is a born again redneck with a large angry dog that barks 24/7. I have not complained because I can't get to his door (the dog is chained there), and I don't know his phone number. I know I should call the local authorities. I have no excuse, but actually, like my neighbor, I have grown accustomed to the noise and can finally sleep through it unless he starts to howl. Besides, if the dog has a sudden and unexpected demise, no one will blame me.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 6:27 PM  

  • Man, the scene you described with the furniture on the curb and the garbage sounds like Baltimore!! It was a constant fight...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:37 PM  

  • James, I once read an article about why humans "punish" each other for misdeed even at their own expense--when punishing a transgressor would cost the individual rather than present a benefit.

    The benefit of punishing others is psychological, of course. Karma or "what comes around goes around" is actually based in good science. One indvidual punishing another he'll never see again does a service to humanity that he sees later when encountering other humans who have been properly "socialized."

    To that end, I DO punish people who transgress against me. I tend to always drive in the fast lane but I leave maybe 1.5 to 2 seconds between me and the preceding car as a minimum safety zone. Often, an aggressive driver will come from behind, pass me on the right and squeeze into that spot. This happened a while ago and I passed him on the right but didnt quite have enough space to get ahead of him. So.... I veered into his lane and forced him further to his left. He still wasn't letting off and we must have went at least a mile w/ me in between lanes and him off to the side a bit before he hit the brakes. He then passed me and did the same thing. Oh, and he had his wife and kids with him, too.

    Now, that happened a while ago and I have really mellowed out in the past six months (and continue to mellow) but the point is that many individuals in society punish other people in daily transactions.

    Even when people are afraid and choose to act more passive-aggressively, they do punish others. Happens ALL of the time.

    But I spend a lot of time thinking about these sorts of things b/c I have very thin skin.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:49 PM  

  • See, I prefer the Cluebat of Doom approach. Neighbor throws stuff in my backyard? I throw it in his frontyard. People need to be taught to be decent, If their parent's couldn't do it, maybe a big pile of dog crap in their chimney will. I'm sick to death of rude inconsiderate people.

    By Anonymous og, at 8:54 PM  

  • Hey Matt, I guess we better not get you those rocket launchers for your car this holiday season. Not until you mellow out a little more. :)

    And James - well said. It is a little hard though to do the confronting when you know the good guys will play by the rules and the bad guys don't. Ultimately I think it comes down to the societal systems in place that enforce accountability. Where it exists, you'll find order, and where it's lacking, you'll find disorder.

    By Blogger The Dummy, at 9:13 PM  

  • Oh, and as for the workout thing - what you've been doing is definitely within the boundaries of 'hitting the gym' - I think we're looking more for exercise and physical activity rather than just being in a room full of weights. Though blending the two wouldn't be a bad idea. Good luck this week.

    By Blogger The Dummy, at 9:16 PM  

  • Nice people have been extinct for ages. I read about them in a textbook.

    By Blogger mist1, at 9:39 PM  

  • one of the scenes I love in Fried Green Tomatoes is the parking lot scene, in which she bashes the young women's car..."you may be younger and faster, but I am older and have more insurance." I wish I could do that at times...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:15 PM  

  • abuelo y abuelita were the first mexicans to buy a home in an all white neighborhood. still living there, abuelito is now the last remaining fully english speaker there. and if you think i mean that there are only mexicans your wrong. the indian next door looks and acts like ali g. he trips me out.

    people tell me that im embarassing for telling parents to take control of their kids when they are runnign up and down in a restaurant or store with no supervision. i will never EVER!!! not tell a parent that they are being disrespectful to the other patrons by not disciplining their kids.

    I have not hesitated to call the cops if neighbors are retarded. i have not hesitated to confront people about anything. i just try to do it in a nice way. and if they dont get the hint i take it up a notch.

    people are pussies. its the age of the PC society. We've taken it too far.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:43 PM  

  • Amen, everybody! And W.O.W. no one would blame you for the dog;>)

    Still, folks I understand some of your reluctance 'cause of the crazies out there who will flip on you. That's part of my reluctance too.

    Yasamin, you are brave. Again, I realize the point of this post is that we should all be a little braver in this regard.

    But I remember a time when my mom used to check people too. That was until she tried to check a woman who was beating - not spanking - the hell out of her kid in the middle of a department store. My mom was like "Calm down...Don't you think you might be overdoing it a little? People are watching you...Police could be called." The woman didn't miss a beat as she turned to my mom and asked if she wanted some too.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:40 AM  

  • Oh, and Claudia, while I'm not city-bashing ('cause I loved Milwaukee), if you're ever visiting the upper Midwest, take a drive through Milwaukee. You will find Baltimore's Midwestern twin.

    The cities are so similar in many ways, that it's scary. Milwaukee is just a little smaller than Baltimore and doesn't have as high a violent crime rate. But in appearance and "issues" they're a lot a like.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:43 AM  

  • A good friend of mine Mose once said "The meek shall inherit the earth--but they'll inherit whatever's left over after the party and not have cause to complain because, well...they're meek."

    Beercan wisdom is a helluva thang.

    The problem with being courteous in a crass society is that you're the crazy one. It's like the whole thing with acting scared of terrorists--once you change your behavior to accomodate your fear of their acts, then you've done exactly what they wanted, which was to be scared of them in the first place.

    So as soon as you put up with a scintilla of someone's BS, you impliedly ask them for more. But the effort to react to every instance of assholiness experienced daily makes you out to be a Tony Randall. How much response is necessary and proper for the world's cretins?

    For instruction on that end, I suggest everyone take in a few episodes of "The Dog Whisperer". Homeboy's lessons in calm assertiveness work as exceptionally well on unsuspecting humans as it does on the jumpy rat dog.

    Once the rudeness starts, you counter it with forced friendliness. Someone cuts in a line, you give them a big hug and say thanks. A cashier gives you sass, say "hey that sounds like a great idea" and write what was said down on a napkin you leave behind. Do it all without irony or sarcasm. Remind these crazy people down here that they don't have the market on ridiculous cornered.

    Let the big alpha psychos eat.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 12:54 AM  

  • It's part of the "Rights" culture. We all have our "Rights" & boy are we going to do anyone who gets in our way.
    The fact that others also have "Rights" just doesn't seem to have dawned!

    That & we've all been encouraged all round to be utterly self-centred & selfish.

    So how about we all start taking a few "Responsibilities" for a change. We clear up after ourselves, turn the stereo down, put litter in the bin (trash in the can?), those of us who have children teach them to do the same, & maybe start mentioning it to other people.

    Cos if we see other people letting standards slip, then give up - there go the standards!

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 6:14 AM  

  • its not that im brave. its that i have a real temper problem. its that i hate to see people be wasteful and unjust to others around them. disrespect pisses me off to no end.

    take for instance, years ago i was carjacked at a gas station at night in Fontana Cali. thats the ghetto right there. anyway enstead of doin the girlie thing and crying my eyes out or doin the smart thing and callin the cops, i ran after the car, jumped into the drivers side window and started to punch the car jacker in the head. mind you.. its a great movie stunt but it could have gotten us killed! it could have ruined my car! it could have done alot of stupid shit that i was lucky didnt happen. he dragged my chubby ass 30 feet before i lost hold of his hair and fell out the window. he could have ran me over. i ran back to the gas station and started yellin at patrons to call the cops! they just stood there! frozen! bystanders to the tee! by the time i calmed down, shock kicked in and i could barely remember my psychotic stunt.

    i dont condone doin anything like that in any way. standing up for yourself has to have a limit and i learned it the hard way that night.

    By Anonymous PSYCHO YAS, at 10:52 AM  

  • We need to all just get together and take back the night. ;)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:41 PM  

  • I'm with you on this one, James. I used to take others' bad behavior much more personally than I do now. And that definitely works better for me, it's the difference between aggressive and assertive. Now, when people hit me with their bags when getting on/off the shuttle to work, I just say, "excuse me - are you aware that you just hit me in the head?" or "please watch your bag, it's hitting me in the head". I think many people are just completely oblivious to their surroundings - i.e., that other people exist. I don't like being invisible, so I give them a gentle reminder that they aren't the only ones walking this earth.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:26 PM  

  • we should start a support group.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:17 PM  

  • When I read this post I kept thinking of that tired old phrase "Your'e gonna get shot one of these days" that usually precedes an upbraiding over not tolerating rude/illegal behavior.

    I've grown sick to death of rude and inconsiderate people. So much so that I refuse to keep my mouth shut and do nothing. These rude/inconsiderate/thuggish folks only do what they do because we have implicitly given them permission to do so.

    Personally, I think that your chances of getting shot are minimal, and the rewards of "pushing back" (i.e.- one more person who will think twice before behaving like an ass again) are worth it. I mean really... aren't there more of us than there are of them?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:42 AM  

  • This is a constant issue for me that I don't necessarily have any problem addressing. Everything is a risk in life, and you never really know what will happen at any given time. I refuse to be a doormat and in the other extreme be fanatical. I am proactive and address things as they come up and on occasion I do get crazy.

    By Blogger Fairmaiden327, at 1:11 PM  

  • The chances of getting shot may be minimal, but the results can be permanent. Turning around ass-like behavior is much less permanent. Some feel the risk vs benefit gap is too great to chance it.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 6:45 AM  

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