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Techniquette: “The Kids Are Not All Right”

I am not the natural heir to the etiquette throne, God knows. I come from a family so uncouth that my former shrink once unblinkingly labeled them a “pack of wolves.” I grew up in Greater Boston, one of this country’s coldest regions in both weather and temperament, and I emigrated to Brooklyn, not Manhattan, more than 10 years ago, not for opera at the Met, dinner at the Four Seasons, and “Talk of the Town,” but for rock-the-mike block parties, West Indian take-out, and stoop-snooping. I owe presents for weddings that took place so long ago the couples are riding the express to Divorce Central. I’ve finally stopped chewing gum but not my fingers; I sit with my legs ajar more often than not; there’s a full inch of roots in my platinum-dyed hair that reveals not only brown but (gasp) gray. And I listen to Hot 97 all day long, a predilection that has done nothing to improve my human interaction skills except to infuse the shout-out into my daily life. As in: “I’d like to dedicate this burp to all the other girls on the L Train wearing holes in your stockings. Yeah, you know who you are, ladies.” Miss Manners I may not be, but I have developed a set of theories about how we should and could “all just get along” in this day and age that makes more sense than what I’m currently experiencing in this crazy apple. For this reason, I offer to you my first installment of Techniquette.

Techniquette: 1. A code of etiquette in a Brave New World. 2. What Lisa Rosman believes to be appropriate behavior in an inappropriately technical era.

We denizens of Brooklyn have always had our own ways. And now, post-September 11, post-dotcom, in the era of cell phones, Prozac, and Mayor Doomsburg, with a strange rash of natural and unnatural disasters clouding the newswire, and the gap between poor and rich widening daily, we rely more than ever on our trademarked brand of resourcefulness, tolerance, and savvy to honor our rich diversity. In other words, just when we’ve got all the reasons in the world to treat each other like shite, it’s more important than ever that we make nice.

It’s not that Brooklynites haven’t always made nice. Otherwise, how would almost four million people from this many backgrounds live cramped together without even more gunfights? Brooklynites’ manners are not unctuous—none of us have the time to waste—but they are utilitarian: precisely because daily life here is so difficult, we help each other out as often as possible. Every day I watch women and men clad in uniforms or business suits, clearly in a rush, stop to help a struggling mom carry a baby carriage down a long subway stairwell. Or shovel out a walkway for an elderly neighbor. Or inquire amiably of passersby whether fries go with their shakes—with a minimum of leering, no less.

Lately, though, things have fallen off a bit, and it’s because of the Peter Pan Syndrome. The social contract works on one very grown-up assumption—that we must each act as if the world doesn’t revolve around ourselves. But what happens if, more and more, acting like a grown-up is considered so tragically unhip?

While all the actual children that I know are alarmingly unchildlike, the rest of hipster Brooklyn acts increasingly more infantile. Sure, it’s a kind of sarcastic homage to childhood, marked by a penchant for Hello Kitty paraphernalia and the Cartoon Network, and an affected ignorance of anything beyond Jenny and Benny from the Block’s upcoming nuptials. And, sure, there may be valid economic and cultural reasons that we’re acting like a bunch of backnee-afflicted, ennui-struck teenagers right now.
But Brooklyn life is difficult enough without having to wipe up a bunch of 30 year-old asses, especially when the whole world’s under siege by a president we didn’t even technically elect but still can’t be roused from our Playstations to override. All you have to do is watch the Michael Jackson special that you secretly taped to gauge just how depressing things have become.

Believe it or not, there’s nothing wrong with growing up. Men are sexier than boys. What’s more, women are sexier than girls. And being a grown-up does mean we get to drive cars, smoke, drink legally, and fuck with a little prowess. It’s just that it also means that poor eye contact and posture, surly manners, and a blatant abuse of the word “like” isn’t cute anymore. Neither is playing with your food, mumbling, phrasing statements like questions, and mocking or whining about things rather than changing them. Rather, they’re all the signs of the serial killer, the developmentally disabled, the chronically unemployed, or (let’s face it) my typical date.
It’s time to let go of that adolescent assumption that it’s, uh, not deck, to take responsibility for yourself. It’s time to say excuse me when you bump into someone. It’s time to hold the door for the person behind you, and to thank whomever did the same for you. It’s time to throw your trash away rather than drop it on the street. It’s time to lower your voice on your cell phone rather than inflict everyone with an analysis of your complexion, your fight with your mother, or your latest pap smear. It’s time to, occasionally, rise early to do volunteer work rather than stay out until 3 a.m. the night before. It’s time to step up to the plate and vote, even if you don’t think your voice will be heard. For that matter, it’s time to stand up for something besides your right to smoke pot or cigarettes. If that’s too much of a reach, then at least it’s time to greet neighbors with a hello rather than a once-over of their outfit.

I’m not suggesting you throw away that Playstation, or, God forbid, that you cut off your pigtails even if you do wear them along with crows’ feet (I’m keeping mine). What I am suggesting is that in these difficult times your teenage rebellion should end when it ceases to be age-appropriate.
Saying please and thank you won’t magically find you an apartment or a job. It won’t make the horror of the last 18 months disappear. And it won’t stop George the Second from bombing Iraq. But, on the other hand, it can’t hurt.



Lisa Rosman


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

All Issues