Sunday, May 16, 2010

Missing Miss Manners on the 181 from New York

Elmo and figures of royalty are not the only ones who refer to themselves in the third person. So too does Judith Martin, the imitable Miss Manners. I read her syndicated column for many years. But, like my fellow passengers on Amtrak train 181, I might stand to read it for a few more. Miss Manners, this one’s for you.

Dear Gentle Readers,

Miss Lunchbox Mom recently returned from an excursion to our nation’s capital, a trip she endeavored by rail, with the companionship of two less seasoned travelers, Heidi (5) and Ava (23 months).

The journey affirmed Miss Lunchbox Mom’s deep conviction that it is always better to travel with one’s mate, especially when heavy luggage is involved.

Absent a spouse, one must depend upon the kindness of strangers, a Red Cap, or a perilous attempt to strap a twenty five pound toddler and her sippy cup to the top of a rolling suitcase.

For in contrast to the nineteenth century technology dominating rail travel, the etiquette aboard the iron horse is astonishing modern.

One need not worry about the awkward pause as a gentleman allows a woman and her children to board ahead of him. Nowadays, trains entering a station do not actually come to a complete stop. Lines are obviated by a custom in which passengers run, grab and jump aboard, much like trolley riders in a commercial for that great San Francisco treat, Rice-A- Ronnie.

Once aboard, gender has little to do with civility; all in need of assistance are equally ignored.

Great care and attention is given, however, to handbags and newsprint. In fact, many such items are afforded comfortable window seats, securing their owner’s moat- like privacy and successfully reducing seating capacity by more than one half.

Fortunately, Miss Lunchbox Mom enjoys a morning constitutional. Let it be noted that when passing through three train cars to secure seats, and then back through the same cars to retrieve a suitcase, and then through the three cars again to reclaim the aforementioned seats, on a rocking locomotive with a toddler, preschooler, purse, toy bag, and suitcase, two things are necessary. One: a rather strong left arm. Two: that the man asleep in row 18 move his foot out of the aisle.

Indeed, sleep is a coveted activity aboard a 7 a.m. train. The gentleman in the row ahead appeared in critical need of it when he reclined his seat into Miss Lunchbox Mom's daughter’s cranium. So, too, was the college student in sunglasses who moved with a huff when we sought refuge in a row near her own. Miss Lunchbox Mom might never forgive herself if she mentioned that it was probably a hangover, and not her children’s quiet conversation, that soured the young woman’s patience. So, she won’t.... mention it, that is.

What Miss Lunchbox Mom will gladly mention is her indebtedness to the nearby conductor who so graciously resisted the urge to assist her and her children when they arrived at Union Station. Can there be a greater lesson in self-reliance for a five year old than to successfully leap across the eighteen inch gap separating the train from the platform?

Had it not been for the European woman who offered to help Miss Lunchbox Mom with her suitcase as she strolled the four hundred meters to the main gate, the general display of indifference would have been flawless.

Indeed, Gentle Readers, Miss Lunchbox Mom is inclined to conclude that apathy and smooth travel go hand in hand. It is only when there is a rock in the metaphoric (or in this case literal) road that the individual is forced to recognize her connection to fellow human beings.

Such was the case on the return 156 en route to New York that came to a sudden halt four minutes from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Perhaps you read about this train’s plight on twitter. Two young men were keen on reporting each minute of our delay—filing tweets with media-friendly hashtags and expressing vocal bewilderment at our delay.

“Pardon me,” Miss Lunchbox Mom said, drawing their attention from their 3G devices. “It seems the view outside clarifies the situation.”

To our side was another train, stranded long before, with passengers flowing from the doors. Down they hopped, onto rocks and track, conveyed by a conductor’s shouts to our rescue train.

“Please clear your seats of all belongings,” a voice overhead announced, “we will be at full capacity.”

Handbags and newspapers were no longer privileged and soon the seats were filled with new passengers. Miss Lunchbox Mom cleared goldfish crumbs from an adjacent seat and placed her toddler on her lap. Her eldest stowed her DVD player; bidding adieu to Robert the Builder.

And, she who had been shunned was now greeted with relief.

“May I sit here?” asked a gentlewoman, taking a seat beside Heidi.

“Is this seat taken?” asked a gentleman, seeking the last in our arrangement for four.

Within minutes the gentlewoman was discussing her fingernail polish with an eager five year old, and the gentleman, a solicitor from the New England town of Darien, proffered an oatmeal raisin cookie, which he divided among us. Au Bon Pain it was.

Behind us, a man dressed in a three piece suit, until now quiet and reserved, looking quite like Sir John Gielgud, broke into fluent Mandarin, surprising his new seat mate with idioms she had not been taught by her immigrant parents.

Tossed into an unexpected closeness, the train took on a new life, and people no longer interested in protecting their space, were united in the pleasure of lambasting Amtrak.

But, one cannot depend upon the undependability of train travel to elicit convivial behavior.

Still, far be it from Miss Lunchbox Mom to long for the days when “good manners” were all the rage. The following is from Gerald Carson’s The Polite Americans, in which he speaks of the etiquette of the 1830’s, when a woman's being guaranteed a seat came with the following baggage:

(Women) were warned to carry a bottle of camphor in their satchel, in case of a fainting spell, and to avoid pestering the train conduction with unnecessary questions like, “Where are we now?” or “When shall we arrive?.....Permissible subjects of casual conversation (with men) were the Scriptures with an excursus into church work in general....But if a man began to act familiar, the tactic for the woman traveler was to ‘lower your veil and turn from him.’”

“A woman registering in a hotel was supposed to sit quietly in the hotel parlor, summon the proprietor and ask him to conduct her to a good room. In the dining hall she was always to use the butter knife, the salt spoon, and sugar tongs, even though dining alone. She should appear in the public rooms with arms and neck covered and never, never play on the hotel piano unless invited to do so.”

Miss Lunchbox Mom does not wish for the days of polite patronization. And thinks it is a flimsy excuse for bad manners to say that in achieving independence, women—or men--have forsaken the ability to show and expect kindness.

The real Miss Manners would chide Miss Lunchbox Mom now, saying it is the height of poor manners to publicly comment on the rudeness of others.

And, Miss Lunchbox Mom accepts her part in this particular travail. Much of the world is not designed for those toting luggage and children, and so often—be it in restaurants, airports, train stations, or grocery stores, tension arises because the pace and structure of the world in which we navigate is inhospitable to those with children.

Manners—even the best of them---cannot make up for that.


Tim Morrissey said...

Ms. Martin is smiling.

kerry said...

Great post! As the mother of an active 18 month old son, I have yet to be brave enough to take him on the train ride to NYC from Princeton Jct..Your post helps to boost my confidence by offering a humorous perspective. Thanks.