Friday, July 12, 2013


I don't consider myself a griper. People who know me know I'm pretty much an even tempered guy, not usually given to fits of rage over trivial matters. My son said to me the other day: "You're kind of a glass is half full kind of guy aren't you?" It's true; while I'm not exactly like the characters at the end of the irreverent Monty Python's Life of Brian, I generally try to look on the brighter side of life.

But there are some things people do that really get my goat, and my reaction to their indiscretions at times surprises even myself. I'm reminded of this as during the past couple of weeks I've been taking my children to the Loop with me, dispersing them at their various summer activities. The extra time with them gives me great joy with this one exception: I normally ride my bike to work during reasonable weather, but with my kids I'm forced to take the "L". Summer is a particularly bad time to take public transportation; it's hot and muggy and most people going to work like me are irritable and would much rather be away on vacation.

I'm not sure if people are ruder on public transportation in the summer or if I'm just a little more sensitive to it. Take this morning: my six year old daughter and I were standing on the platform as our train pulled into the station. It just so happened that we stood directly in front of the door as the train stopped. Just as the door was about to open, a young woman maneuvered herself in front of us. I let out an audible "Really?" but no matter, she got on the train ahead of us and took the only available seat. True to my sense of fair play, I must say that quite often, people are polite on public transportation in this city. While I'm traveling with my kids, it's not uncommon for someone to offer one of my kids, his or her seat. This kind of selfless behavior truly humbles me. On the other hand, one seat is not enough for some people. Directly across from the rude woman I mentioned above, sat a young man taking up an entire seat intended for two passengers. When I'm by myself, normally I let this kind of selfishness slide not being interested in a confrontation. But I didn't want my six year old to have to stand unnecessarily on a moving train so I let the guy know I intended to sit down whether he liked it or not. Grudgingly he moved over, allowing my daughter and me about one quarter of "his" seat. At one point during our long journey, the lout dropped his iPhone on my leg and let out a sarcastic,"Oh I'm SO sorry", to which I responded in kind: "Oh NO problem."

You may have noticed that I described these boorish characters as being young, both I'd say were in their early twenties. But I've found that rudeness knows no age, gender, ethnic or racial bounds. Neither does kindness. I've had people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and races offer me their seat while I'm with my kids, which under all but the most extreme situations, I turn down while thanking them profusely.

One day this week, my son and I found ourselves on a packed L car, crammed against the door. When the train pulled into the next station, we stepped out of the train to allow passengers to exit. As we were waiting to get back on board, a man who had not been on the train cut in front of us, and once all the passengers got out, attempted to board the train. This time I was not so passive. I said "excuse me" and pushed myself and my son in front of the guy. Despite believing to be in the right, I felt like a complete jerk, plunging myself into the domain of the louts. That feeling was only exacerbated a moment later when a woman offered her seat to my son.

And so it goes in the big city, whenever you have an encounter that makes you think the world, you included, have all gone to hell, someone comes along and restores your faith in humanity.

On the radio the other day I heard a story about wearing "inappropriate" clothing in public, especially in the summertime. Four people selected randomly on the street were interviewed on the topic. Two said they felt that people should take care to dress modestly in public while the other two said it shouldn't matter, citing that people should be free to wear whatever they pleased so long as it makes them comfortable. It's clear that our ideas of appropriate attire have changed drastically over the years. If you look at an old photograph of people in Chicago's Loop for example, everyone is dressed formally, men in suits, women wearing gloves, and everyone wearing a hat. Today it's not uncommon to see people on the streets of downtown Chicago wearing clothing that would not even have been considered appropriate beach attire fifty years ago. Because we live in a society that seems to value personal freedom over everything else it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that values such as etiquette, manners, and politeness have become unfashionable.

However when you distill those three quaint values down to their essence, they don't seem so old fashioned at all, for at the heart of all three is a virtue that continues to ring true in most people's hearts and minds. At least I'd like to think it still does. That virtue is respect.

Many people associate the "golden rule", that is, doing unto others as you would have done to you, with Christianity. But in fact this virtue, the cornerstone of civilization,  exists in every culture, if not expressed in those exact words. Respect for others is the glue that binds society together. It's what prevents us from beating, robbing, and killing one another on a daily basis.

The glass full part of me wants to give the line cutters, seat hoggers and the like, the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it was a momentary lapse of consciousness, maybe they had a bad day and not thinking, knew not what they were doing. Society and rules of conduct as expressed by grooming and attire certainly have changed as we can tell by comparing photographs of people of the past and people of today. But honestly I cannot say that rudeness and lack of civility in public are worse today than in the past. As they say, it only takes one apple to spoil the whole bunch and for many including myself, one or two bad experiences can sour one's view of the state of humanity.

Given the perception of how much we've lost in terms of common decency in our world, sometimes it surprises me that there is any decorum left out there. That said, unwritten laws of conduct and common sense still are the rule. On the L they dictate at the very least that you treat your fellow passengers with the same respect that you would expect for yourself. While not everyone thinks to do the right thing and give up his or her seat on a train to a person who is elderly, handicapped or a pregnant women, many people still do it without question. The people who offer their seat to a perfectly healthy guy with a kid or two in tow are going above and beyond the call of duty. To all of you who have offered my children and me your seat on the train or bus I have this to say:

Thank you, your simple gift of kindness makes the world a better place.


A funny thing happened: just now as I finished writing this piece, the following song played on my Pandora radio station:


 I must be on to something.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been noticing some of the same lately - lots of "f" bombs going off just walking through kmart and the like - personal freedom is one thing but RESPECT is what makes us human beings right??