Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cellphone Assholery

Like many people, I’ve been railing against wayward cellphone users for a few years now. (For the record, I have one. I don’t even have a landline. I use it sparingly, rarely in public, and if I do, wherever I’m at, I pull over to avoid hindering/bothering people around me and try to create some small space of privacy. If I’m in conversation with someone, I will not answer a cellphone, unless it’s my Mom calling.) My issue? Simply that much like drugs or big money, cellphones amplify assholery. If you’re normally an asshole, these things will make you an even bigger asshole.

Two recent experiences, both in my neighborhood, have me believing this now more than ever. Don’t get me wrong – I deal with assholes on cellphones every day. Embarrassing personal conversations at top volume in public. Total lack of concern for anyone else in the immediate vicinity. Inability to grasp spatial relations in tight quarters. It’s an all-day, every-day thing in New York, the Valhalla of arrogant assholes. But it’s reaching a point with me now where the level of arrogance is at fever pitch – or maybe it’s just me getting tired of this nonsense.

The first situation was very brief, took place outside a bagel store in the neighborhood just after work one day. Usually later in the week, I pick up a few bagels for breakfast the next two mornings. The bagel store that opened up on the main drag is great, one of the few stores that caters to all social strata, with good prices and kosher bagels. In the mornings, it’s filled with Con Ed and construction workers packing on carbs for their work day, and on weekends is overflowing with the younger, more-moneyed gentry trying to get over hangovers and such.

As I was heading towards the bagel store, I noticed something odd: a rotund white woman standing in the doorway, on the sidewalk. On the younger side. Just standing there with her hands cupped in front of her. As I got nearer, I could see that she was texting a message on a cellphone. Directly in the doorway so that no one could leave or enter without encountering her.

Now, if I have to explain why this is offensive, stop reading now, we’re living in two different worlds. I don’t know how some cellphone users have gotten it into their heads that wherever they are is perfectly acceptable to stop and do their thing, even if they are blocking passage in a public place. I see this ALL THE TIME in Manhattan on crowded sidewalks, but not so much in Astoria. When I do see this kind of arrogance in Astoria, a vast majority of the time, the perpetrator has the look of those annoying white folks who have moved here in the past few years that everyone who already lives here, save real estate brokers, wishes would move straight out again. Hipster, yuppie, whatever – a certain breed of pampered white folks should strongly reconsider living in 718 neighborhoods, because their self-absorbed lack of concern is the exact antithesis of street smarts.

Understand that from the moment I saw this woman until I got to the door of the bagel store, we’re talking a good 30 seconds – a long time to stand still in front of a door. Ask yourself: have you ever positioned yourself in front of the door of a store (so that no one could enter or leave) during business hours and stood there for more than five seconds? Probably not, unless you were holding it open for someone in a wheelchair. This woman was clearly standing there for an indefinite period of time, much like a homeless person begging for change who wants you to deal with him.

I walked by her and opened the door to the bagel store, just enough to squeeze in, and as I did, the door brushed against this woman’s calf. And I mean brushed – I purposely didn’t open the door all the way because I decided, foolishly, that I didn’t want to disturb her. And there was no way I was going to say “excuse me” to someone camped out like this. Bitch, you’re standing in the doorway. You know you’re standing in the doorway. Frankly, if I grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out of the doorway, while this would have been rude, it would have been no more or less rude than what she had been doing.

As the door brushes her calf, she barks out, in a froggy voice, “You know, you could have just said ‘excuse me’ and I would have moved!”

Any number of nasty, tactless retorts entered my mind. Involving weight. And physical beauty, or lack thereof. But her response had me thinking, “Was she waiting for someone to do this just so someone would talk to her?”

I mean, honestly, you’re in the middle of a fucking doorway. You’re blocking people from entering or leaving. You want a confrontation. You demand one. I thought, should I say nothing? “Go fuck yourself” would be too harsh under the circumstances. Granted, she had earned it, but her response had me thinking, this person wants attention, positive or negative, and I don’t even want to acknowledge her presence, wish she’d disappear like someone being beamed up on Star Trek, hopefully to another planet.

“And you could have just moved,” I responded in a tired tone of voice.

Good enough, I thought. I ordered my bagels, came back out. This time, she had moved to the side of the door, so I guess, mission accomplished. She started saying, “Excuse me, excuse me …” in that croaky, weird voice, and I thought, you know, we’ve had enough contact, I’m just going to keep walking here. Which is exactly what I did, without turning around once. She didn’t make the effort to follow me – seeing as how she couldn’t make the effort to get out of the doorway, this was no surprise. Haven’t seen her since – hope to never see her again.

The second situation happened the other night on the subway train. A rainy evening after work. The rush-hour train wasn’t bad – not too crowded, an average trip, still a lot of people. We reach our stop in Astoria, everyone piles out. The problem with my station is it was built years before the influx of subway-using Manhattan office workers, thus even when an average-size crowd of passengers gets off the train, there is always a bottleneck at the steps. It gets uncomfortable sometimes, and even dangerous when people aren’t paying attention, which is often. I haven’t seen anyone plummet down the stairs yet, but there have been a few close calls and a lot of bad manners.

As the crowd is jostling down the stairs, I notice a good-sized guy in front of me moving a little too slowly. By that, I mean people are passing him on the left, and he seems to be shuffling down the stairs as if injured, with his head down. I know that gait, as I’ve seen it countless times before: it’s the walk of someone checking his cellphone on a crowded public staircase.

Do I have to underline how stupid it is to do something like this on an empty staircase, much less one bustling with dozens of people in a hurry to get the hell out of the station and home?

There’s a space of at least three people in front of the guy as others stream around him on the left. I’m right behind him and can’t move due to the stream of people going around him – naturally, I’m peeved. I figure, just keep moving, this horse’s ass will be out of my life momentarily. I can see over his shoulder that he has an iPhone and is checking email messages on it. Again, why it doesn’t occur to people like this that a crowded staircase in a subway station during rush hour is not the time or place to do this is a mystery to me – the same, ever-present mystery that constantly presents itself with arrogant pricks.

I will swear on a stack of bibles that I didn’t try to do this, but somehow, when I was putting my right foot forward, it clicked against the back of this guy’s heel. An innocent action, not a mistake, not anyone’s fault. Frankly, if the guy had been moving at a normal rate of speed, nothing would have happened. I did nothing wrong. He did nothing wrong. As an experienced city dweller, I know this intuitively. No blood, no foul. You move on. I’ve been in his shoes many times – it’s a non-issue.

Unfortunately, this guy didn’t see things that way. He glanced over his shoulder and said, “You could at least say you’re sorry.”

No, I couldn’t. Granted, if I was being a nice guy, if this person wasn’t such an ass, I normally would have mumbled “sorry” just to acknowledge something odd had happened, even though, again, I had done nothing wrong, committed no harm to this person. At this point, I’d pretty much had it and barked out: “Problem is I’m not sorry when you’re checking your fucking email on a crowded staircase.”

Which is the situation in a nutshell. Again, pointing out wrong-doing to people this far gone is a waste of time. In their minds, they are never wrong.

We keep moving, and I can see this guy is stewing. He has an accent – European. Couldn’t place it as French or Dutch. We get out into the station, and I see him glancing over his shoulder every now and then and cursing. Whatever. We’re both exiting through the same stair case to the street (there are four), and I can see as we head down the staircase – amazing how his pace picked up once he put his iPhone away – he keeps turning to look at me, and I’m thinking, buddy, you are doing this all wrong.

We get to the bottom of the stairs, and Van Damme starts in: “You are a piece of shit. You are a disgrace to humanity, fuck you. Fuck you and all ugly, sick people like you.”

Or something like that. Like an over-reacting little child who just got spanked for crayoning wallpaper. I could see if I had pushed him down the stairs, or called his mother a whore, to warrant this type of bitterness, but no. The toe of one of my feet accidentally clipped the heel of one his. And I wouldn’t apologize for this, and in fact let him know why this had happened, that he was so slow and dangerously inattentive in a crowded public place.

“Dude, I’m not sorry. Get over it.”

He couldn’t get over it.

“I should stomp your ass, how about that?” Van Damme countered.

I’m looking at this guy – in a nice sweater, carrying an iPhone – and thinking, boy, you are really fucking stupid. You should never pick a fight when you’re carrying an iPhone. Lose consciousness, and chances are that expensive little toy, and other things, will be leaving your possession. Besides which, within 10 seconds of this guy taking a swing at me, store owners right by the train station and probably more than few people on the crowded rush hour street, would have their cellphones out calling 911. Let’s not even get into the fact that I’ve been boxing for about 15 years and win, lose or draw, I’m going to hit this guy in ways he will feel weeks later.

On top of which, the cardinal rule of ass kicking: if you’re going to fight someone, don’t announce it, just do it. I’ve never seen anyone say “I’m going to kick your ass” and then actually kick someone’s ass. I’ve seen guys say that and engage in silly posturing for a few tense minutes, usually before walking away, muttering recriminations. The real fights I’ve seen just happen, as the guy starting it knows, like a cop pulling his gun to shoot someone, if you’re going to get in a physical confrontation, you want to get a jump on your opponent and do some damage before he has a chance to respond. You don’t announce your intention to do physical harm if you truly mean to do physical harm.

So, Van Damme has just told me he’s afraid to hit me, which is fine, but thinks he can intimidate me with his heavily-accented trash-talking. He sounds like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. I don’t know what to tell a pouty little child like this. Verbal humiliation? This is the stuff of 15-year-olds. I’m a grown-ass man. If you want a physical confrontation, hit me. I’ll give you one.

So I said, “Go ahead and try. I’ll fight back.”

“Fuck you, asshole, pricks like you are ruining the world.”

“That’s right. Please hit me. What are you waiting for?”

If I was an asshole, I’d push him or slap him on the head at this point. But, again, if I was going to (foolishly) fight this guy, I would have hit him square in the face the first time he turned around to look at me and kept wailing on him from there. And I’m thinking, with all the witnesses here, I’d want it on record that this guy took a swing at me, and I defended myself.

“I should kick your ass.”

At this point, I’d had enough. Understand, this whole time, I’m walking, he’s walking with me. I have no intention of stopping. Generally, when I’m near an asshole, my immediate thought is, “let me get away from this asshole.” This was no different. But I had to end this, without getting physical over something so asinine, so I pulled my trump card.

“I’m an off-duty cop, asshole. Take a swing at me, and let’s see where this goes.”

For some reason, this bold-faced lie stopped him in his tracks. We had been both heading north, and he stopped walking, still muttering curses and such, to which I replied, “Blah, blah, blah.”

And that’s where Van Damme finally came to his senses. Realized he was about to get himself in real bad trouble, one way or another. I think when I repeatedly encouraged him to hit me and he didn’t, he grasped that I wasn’t afraid of him, and give the guy credit, he did a little more testosteronally required belly-aching, then wisely let it go. Something he should have done in the first place before acting like victim of the century.

While crass, infantile bastards like this aren’t par for the course in my experience, every now and then … Again, the way this guy was carrying on, you’d have thought I dragged him down the stairs in a headlock. No, I just told him the truth, a truth I’ve experienced many times before, but kept to myself: only the flamingest of assholes would pull out a blackberry style device and check his email messages on a crowded public staircase. There is no debate and no defense of stupidity on this level.

Think this message of sanity will register with Van Damme? I know it won’t. That’s the axis of the self-absorbed assholes’ funhouse world: the rest of the world will always be wrong, and they will always be right. Think I’m getting tired of dealing with people like this? You better believe it. But I don’t see any end in sight. And I know they’re everywhere, not just here!

I’m starting to think it might just be a better idea to leave them alone and learn how to relax, because as I’ve noted a few times, the cardinal rule of city life: avoid meaningless confrontation. I’d like to think there is some meaning here, some lesson learned, but I think I answered my question repeatedly, and it’s a resounding “No!”. Ultimately, it’s more my fault for letting cellphone assholery bother me so when there are plenty of other kinds floating around the streets on any given day. I’d rather not be rude to anyone for any reason – more a karma thing than a physical health one. But people like these two make it real hard.


J said...

Hey there, Bill. Or is it William? You and I corresponded a while back over your blog entry on Bill Stafford -- the steel pedal guitarist who contributed tracks to the "My Own Private Idaho" soundtrack. So, apologies for not remembering your preferred name.
Since, I've been reading your blog regularly. Great stuff, and thanks for sharing it here. There's far too much mental masturbation online; nice to find a blog from which I can take away something useful or at the very least entertaining.
Your Van Damme scenario is one that has played out far too many times in my life. I was born and raised in Queens (and lived in Astoria for about five years) and now reside in New York's Orange County. Why the details? Well, NYC is just a hotbed for confrontations of all kinds (especially the one you described here). More so than other cities, and certainly well more than any given suburban community anywhere.
OK, my point (or rather, question): Why the "trump card"? Posing as a cop is a big deal to those who actually are, and I wonder why you did this. I'm guessing you read the situation and felt safe doing it, but still, that was quite a gamble.
But kudos for keeping your cool.

William S. Repsher said...

"Trump card" because I could easily pass for an off-duty cop or fireman, and in a situation like this, where there was no way on earth I was going to hit this guy over something so inconsequential, but sensed, via the trash talking, that this guy wasn't very smart and was all bluster (as opposed to all action), I planted the idea in his mind that should he force a physical confrontation, there could be more dire consequences than what he had anticipated.

And this appeared to work! Not a big gamble from my point of view. If I was getting ready to clock someone, and he identifed himself as a cop, bogus or not, you'd better believe I'd think twice about doing so.

I'm trying to minimize these sort of dumb-bell confrontations -- I'm not society's bouncer, for crying out loud, and basically, this is the self-appointed role I'd find myself in if I took umbrage every time I dealt with nonsense like this. Life's too short!

I go by just about any name, just don't call me "stupid prick" in a French accent, as it will bring back this episode as a flashback. Thanks for reading, and hope you got those CDs from Bill -- some great stuff for sure.