I used to make fun of law and order as “lawn order” but I don’t anymore. I was a motorist then and now I’m a pedestrian, and when you get down off your horse, you feel the value of civil order, it isn’t just an idea anymore. This happened when we took up residence in New York where having a car is mainly a hindrance, like owning a camel. Parking regulations alone can drive you nuts: Parking On Odd-Numbered Days Except Between 4 and 6 a.m. And During Snowstorms Of More Than Two Inches. And then there are times when traffic slows to 2 mph. So you walk.
I like New York because my wife loves it for the museums, theater, friends, and Central Park. If it were up to me, I’d go back to the log cabin in the woods where I lived when I met her, but here I am and it’s okay. But whenever I hear that awful song (“Start spreading the news”) I have to leave the room. New York life is not about being “king of the hill, top of the heap,” it’s about appreciating civil order.
A great civility prevails here. A woman stopped me the other day to point out that my shoelace was untied. I saw an old lady topple over and within three seconds, ten people were there at her side to assist and comfort. I ask directions and people are helpful. I’m a slow walker and younger people don’t thrust themselves past me, they yield. It’s a tolerant culture. You could go out walking in your pajamas and people would accept this as idiosyncrasy or they’d figure you were under indictment and going for the insanity defense. You could burst into tears in a café and people might offer the name of their therapist or tell you about something that happened to them recently. Homosexuality was never considered a sickness because that’d mean too many people not showing up for work.
You appreciate civility all the more when it’s threatened and these days New York is beset with a plague of e-vehicles, bicycles and scooters, the skinny kind you stand up on, that run silently like a torpedo at 30 mph, ignoring red lights, weaving through traffic and along bike lanes and sometimes onto sidewalks. The scooterist probably imagines he is a progressive but actually he is a terrorist. The only time the idea of gun ownership has crossed my mind was when an electric scooter swerved around me, running a red light, and I imagined pulling out my .357 Magnum.
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The .357 Magnum was the gun Dick Tracy carried. As a child, I came home from church Sunday morning and read about Dick Tracy’s campaign against evildoers and so I grew up to be a decent person. At school I stood in line in the cafeteria, apologized if I bumped someone, and spoke when spoken to. Myrtle the cook dished up the Spanish rice and wieners and I said, “Thank you.” I sat at a table with the nice kids. Thus was I introduced to civil society. I avoided the school bully. (I met him at a class reunion recently and he told me about his extensive gun collection. No surprise there.)
When the scooterist zooms past me and barely avoids the stroller with two infants, I have to reconsider individualism as a way of life. I used to admire Thoreau who said, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” But there were no electric scooters in Concord back then. And when I think, “Advance confidently without regard to red lights, and live the life you wish, ignoring what may be in your path, and you will succeed in scaring the bejesus out of people,” it doesn’t sound like Henry anymore.
When I made fun of “lawn order,” I was having fun feeling frisky but now, seeing the resistance to mask mandates and other public health measures, the political attacks on public education, something more ominous is going on. One hopes for the best: what else can you do? But I’m lucky to be in New York. I board the C train and the car is crowded and more and more people board until we’re packed in tight, standing inches away from each other, avoiding eye contact, contained in a tiny space, and to me it’s the ultimate in civility. A dense crowd of considerate people. Spread the news.
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