What’s a Mother to Do?
by Ann Edwards Castle

Chapter 33
My Politeness Problem
(Or the Day I Realized I Had Turned into a New Yorker) 

[p.103]So there I was, illegally parked in a spot with a sign that said U.S. POSTAL SERVICE VEHICLES only.

I knew it was dicey when I parked there, because I have this absolutely huge history of getting caught—just like the one time in my entire life when I parked too close to a fire hydrant and an actual fire truck pulled up just as I was getting out of the car.

Anyway, I was illegally parked there in front of the post office for a grand total of three minutes, and when I came back, sure enough, there was an enormous U.S. Postal Service truck that looked capable of moving heavy machinery penning in my car. Also there were two people in the truck, the driver and his pal, both of them largish guys of the goon variety, who scowled as I approached.

Naturally, my first impulse was to fall on my knees and beg for forgiveness. That’s certainly the approach I’ve always taken. But then I remembered that hey, this was New York after all.

“So,” I called to them belligerently, “when are you guys going to get your truck out of my way?”

The two of them came completely uncorked. They told me that I was a such-and-such and that I should go do this and that and I said yeah, yeah, and so on and so forth, and the three of us managed to have ourselves a very satisfying little round of verbal fisticuffs.

That was the moment I realized that after spending nearly a year in their company, I had finally turned into a New Yorker.

New Yorkers pride themselves on their toughness, although after having lived for a time in Finland where the inhabitants think it’s just a bunch 0’ fun to beat themselves with birch branches while roasting in a sauna, I don’t think New Yorkers are particularly tough. For my money, there is nothing stoical about the typical New Yorker. The whole notion of a stiff upper lip is completely lost on him. New Yorkers kvetch about everything from the weather to taxes to the Mets. [p.104]What they do have plenty of, however, is edge. Get in a New Yorker’s face, and he’ll get right back in yours.

I remember visiting my sister-in-law while she was living in Manhattan. Whenever a taxi crowded her in a crosswalk, she whipped out an umbrella and cracked it over the hood of the car as though it were an errant Victorian school child.

I, naturally, was totally in awe of this, because according to a friend, I had a problem.

“You’re too polite,” she said to me. “You have a politeness problem.”

While it is true that I once apologized from the delivery table to my o.b. for making so much noise, and while it is likewise true that I once had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who mistakenly dialed my number and thought I was their cousin, and while it is finally true that my piano teacher still calls me Diane because I’m afraid I’ll embarrass her if I point out my true identity, I hardly think of myself as having a politeness problem.

“I’m not that polite,” I told her. “I do rude things all the time.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but usually not on purpose.”

Great, I thought, so she thinks I’m polite and stupid.

Somewhat shaken, I decided I’d seize the very next opportunity that presented itself to be NOT polite, which occurred when I called the doctor’s office. I was put on hold and forced to listen to three entire Neil Diamond songs: (a) “Sweet Caroline,” (b) “Cracklin’ Rosie,” and (c) the stupidest song in the history of the world—i.e., “I Am I Said.”

Now, I know that there are a lot of wonderful people out there who love Neil Diamond almost as much as they love Barbra Streisand. Some of my best friends, in fact, are Neil Diamond lovers. It’s just that I don’t happen to be one of them, so to have to wait on the telephone while listening to Neil whine about no one being there to hear, NOT EVEN THE CHAIR for petessakes, was really more than I could take.

When the receptionist finally picked up my line again, I was firm to the point of brusqueness.

“I really don’t mind holding for ten minutes,” I said, “but don’t you ever dare make me listen to another block of Neil Diamond again.”

[p.105]Then I hung up—after which I promptly called back and apologized.

I don’t come by this kind of behavior naturally. Quite the opposite, in fact. I come from a long line of women who, while never aggressive and certainly not mean, could strike true terror in the hearts of lazy sales clerks when the situation warranted it. To this day I can still remember the terse, elegant fit my mother threw when it became apparent that a waitress at our favorite Mexican restaurant had served her boyfriend his Bandido Especial, then lingered lovingly at his table before serving us our combo plates, even though we had ordered months and months before him. It was exactly the kind of fit Jackie O. would have thrown if Jackie O. had had to wait an unreasonable amount of time for her combo plate, too.

So maybe I’m over my politeness problem now that I’ve butted heads with mail guys. What do you think? I would appreciate your comments very much.

And I promise I’ll write you a thank you note as soon as I receive them.