It's all in the attitude
| It was late on a gloomy Sunday morning in early April of the year 2000. My clients sat on the other side of my desk in my office in center city Philadelphia. They were my first of the day, a day when my Hudson Valley home was being inundated under nine inches of snow. An inch had fallen in Philadelphia but now it was cloudy, dank and cold.
My building is locked on Sunday. I recognized the couple as I walked from the parking lot. They were sitting in their British racing green Range Rover in front. I let the wife in with my passkey while the husband parked the car. He came back, we went upstairs to the ninth floor and began our work. They handed me a stack of papers to go through and then began to chat with each other, bringing each other up to date on the events of their world.
Their conversation seemed more suited for the office on Monday morning. The thought struck me that perhaps they had not married and produced the three teenage children, the subject of their talks, but rather had brought off a Merger and Acquistion, or even a Leveraged Buyout. I was about halfway through the stack of envelopes when the chit-chat faded and the woman asked where she could get some coffee.
I gave her my passkey and sent her over to Xero, the coffee/martini bar on the corner. She returned twenty minutes later with a cardboard cup with a peaked cap, an invention I consider the greatest boon to humankind since the tomato. "David, do the people who work at that place practice ignoring people on purpose? It took me all this time to get this coffee and muffin."
I estimate she was ten years younger than I was, but that still put her in her mid-forties. How to explain? I neatly paraphrased G.P. Hartley:
"Jean, Xero is a foreign country, people do things differently there."
"You stepped across an attitude warp. The people who go there do not recognize anyone over a certain attitude. You did not give off irony. You wanted to be served; to be waited on, you were supposed to act indifferent."
This incident of over a year ago came back to me as I heard on television that a songwriter of the early seventies would be performing at the Saratoga Arts Center this summer. Summer re-runs take on new meaning these days as re-treads in every shape and size let us know that when we play that game of who is alive and who has died, they are still kicking, singing the same songs.
That last remark was mean. If they sang new songs, the audience would not come, for the audience will be thousands of Jean's, dragging along their youngest teens to witness what thrilled them as teens. They will be safe at this concert, no one will be indifferent, and the refreshment stands will serve them.
That does not mean that old fogies like Jean and I do not experience attitudinal problems in places other than Xero, but these originate from those who Wolfe called 'the masters of the urban sneer': the taxi driver, the short order waitress, the ticket seller, the trashman. These are people who for one moment have the power to make life miserable, and know it.
One way to deal with these people is to put on a pair of FY shoes. "Herbie's wearing his FY shoes" was a line in a book about the David Begelman/Columbia Pictures scandal of the 1970s. The phrase has stuck in my mind since then. Translated, it means treat them just as miserably as they treat you, but the problem with that approach is that there is no fallback position, no alternative if it doesn't work. Pounding the counter and barking "Hey, Nosering, I want a cup of coffee" might get you a cup of Joe, or it might result in the raising of the ante, as the young man or woman with the ring in their nose walks over to the stereo system and turnsup the volume. See how long you can stand there while this woman vocalist with this amazingly flat voice, and at a decibel level which would drown out a landing 747, "sings" about how alienated she is with the world.
Adaptability is the key to survival. Look to the chameleon that changes its color to keep out of harm's way. Call the short order cook and waitress "Mac" and "Hon" when they ask "what can I get you Mac?" "Well, Hon, I'd love a BLT, easy on the mayo." Close your eyes and enjoy the ride in the taxi. Pay no heed to the fact that your chauffer has no idea where he is going, and can't tell you because you don't speak Parsi or Urdu.
This does not mean you must carry a spare nose ring, or an outfit of basic black to change into when you enter Xero, but that you carry spare attitudes around with you in your shoulder bag, fanny pack or laptop case. Your state of mind is your state of being. Is this not what a Zen master would say?
This year when Jean wanted her cup of coffee, I walked to Xero with her. We stood, stared at and ignored. I levitated the counter up to the ceiling, stepped behind it, lowered it back into place, poured two cups of coffee into cardboard cups with peaked cap lids, took out my wand and drew a line around the counter and the workers who stood there ignoring me, and intoned 'EEE-STA-SA-SESSAWAY'. With those words the floor opened beneath the counter and the workers and they were all consigned to a fiery Hell. Jean and I walked out with our coffee. I bought her a red balloon from a street vendor for good measure.
"How did you do that?" she said.
"That? Oh, its all in the attitude."