Social vigilantism gone right and wrong

March 12, 2012

Listen to Claire Zulkey on Afternoon Shift

The other week, I was walking back into my office building during my lunch break when I watched a man hurriedly puff the rest of his cigarette butt and drop it on the sidewalk before entering a waiting cab. A garbage can was two feet away from him.

Every now and then, when I’m in the right mood, I can’t help myself when I spy someone behaving in a “someone less important than I am will take care of this” kind of way.

So I helpfully called out to him, “There’s a garbage can right there!”

“You wanna put it in there, then?” the guy yelled.

Well, that wasn’t very successful.

Now I wasn’t just mad at the litterer for being a litterer, I was angry with him for being a defensive litterer. I’d like to think that if someone caught me trying to cut the corners of etiquette, I’d have the good sense to feel shame, not lash out at the person catching me. Then again, maybe people don’t like being publicly corrected for some reason.

However, I do have a few stories of successful social etiquette vigilantism, just to make us feel like the fight to be right isn’t always futile. Here are a few:

From my mom: Once, I was in the Evanston Jewel parking lot and watched a young lady tear up a piece of paper into several little pieces and just drop them on the ground. I  was disgusted by it. This is a Jewel where everyone is so conscientious about returning their carts, and I try to pick up stray plastic bags lest they get caught in the trees.

I said "Miss, I think you dropped something.” I just stood there and gave her the mother look. She picked them all up. I was frankly astounded that she reacted positively to it.  I was so happy I still have it - the mother guilt thing.

From Sarah: I was so excited that I had caught the Christmas bus, which is even rarer and harder to predict than the Christmas El. However, I couldn’t hear the holiday music over these two women having the loudest conversation ever, so I asked them, “Excuse me, could you please keep it down? I’m trying to enjoy the music.” They muttered about me afterwards, but they did quiet down. I was so happy.

From Elizabeth: There are two parking paystations in between the pedestrian bridge at Northwestern Hospital and the elevator lobby for the parking garage. There was a single line of about four or five people ahead of me, so I jumped into that line, and a few people joined right behind me.  It made perfect sense to me to continue the single line formation because occasionally you get people at the machines who don't know what they're doing. If you have TWO lines, you could get stuck behind one of those people. If you have ONE line, then the next person in line simply goes to whichever machine opens first. Things move faster this way.  

However, this older woman appears next to me all of sudden and then proceeds to inch ahead of me, but off to the side. I realized she somehow believed that this whole line of eight or nine people was waiting for the paystation on the left, while clearly no one was waiting for the paystation on the right. Um, yeah, sure.

So I said, "Are you just going to cut in front of everyone!?"

She got all huffy and flustered and said, "Oh, I thought there were two lines." 

I said, "No, just one."  

Her husband, standing off to the side, said "What's the problem?"  

She told him there was only one line, not two, and told him how she'd never seen such a thing before.

He chimed in, "Must be how they do it here in the city!" implying that we "city folk" are backwards and inefficient, while those from the sticks are much more knowledgeable and efficient. But at least she got in line.

From Annie: Several years ago I was at the playground, and some Big Kids there were writing swear words on the sliding board. I asked them if the little kids who played there needed to see those words. The got sheepish and left.

From Cinnamon: While on the train late one night, there was a homeless woman asleep in one of the sideways facing seats near the door. A guy got on and was going car to car asking for spare change. He passed the woman, saw she was asleep, and reached into her pocket.

I jumped up and said "That is not cool. You can't just take stuff out of her pocket."

An undercover cop who was hanging out on the back of the train texting came walking up and asked what was going on. I told him that the guy took stuff out of her pocket and put it in his pants pocket.

The cop raised his eyebrows. The guy grabbed the stuff out of pocket and handed it to the cop. Then he walked past him to the next car. The cop handed the stuff back to the woman who put it back in her pocket and curled back up to fall asleep.

From Robertha: My favorite CTA phenomenon: the queue for the westbound Addison bus at the Blue Line station. It forms every day during rush hour. It starts with a few people standing out by the bus stop sign right outside the station. As trains come in, and more people file in line, the queue grows longer; eventually, over half the people waiting for the bus are still behind the turnstile (i.e. technically within the train station.)

The queue gets so long it snakes in a tight coil within the station a flight of stairs above the train platform. There are rules. There is no smoking in the queue. When it’s raining or snowing, it’s not unusual for the queue to start a few feet off the sidewalk, so that everyone benefits from the shelter of the train station.

Sometimes, newbies wander off the train and don’t understand and go right out to the bus stop sign to wait for the bus. They are informed (politely, by two-three people at once) that there is a line.

I’ve seen this happen a lot, and the newbie always either (1) shrugs, gets in line or (2) shrugs, walks away. Once you have filed in line, you are free to periodically walk up to the front to look for the bus without losing your place. But you cannot abuse this privilege; maybe you can pull this move off twice without invoking any wrath. Children can have their place in line held for them by a parent.

One of mine: I was at the movie theater, stuck a few rows behind someone wearing a bluetooth (in case he got a call during the movie?) that blinked a bright blue light every few seconds. All I could watch was the light--I can’t even remember what movie was anymore. So I snuck down a few aisles and said, “Excuse me, do you mind please taking off our turning off your bluetooth? The light is really distracting.” I ran back to my seat before I could see or hear his response, which I think was the key--he might have called me a name in the process but at least the light was gone by the time I sat down.

Unfortunately, more times than not the people caught by social vigilantes react like the cigarette smoking man: negatively. I collected a few stories, too, from people who tried to call out bad behavior and got punished for it:

From Bryan: I confronted a car full of kids who had parked in my alley once to allow one of their number to vomit profusely all over my garage as I was trying to park my car. I stared them down until one girl said “WHAT YOU LOOOOKIN' AT SO STOOPID?"

Another time I was just driving along and these kids started throwing rocks at my car. I got out to yell at them and they just started throwing rocks at me. That was dumb.

From Katie: A few years ago, in the alley behind my Rogers Park apartment, a bunch of teenagers walking ahead of me were shedding their McDonald's trash. A cup here, a fries carton there. I picked it up and yelled out to them to please stop using the alley as a trash can which inspired them to turn around me, look me dead in the eye, and drop everything in their hands onto the ground. The wrappers, the bags, their milkshakes and nuggets. Everything. I really taught those litterbugs a lesson.

From Nora: Twice, I've calmly pointed out when people have neglected to clean up after their dogs. Both times I've gotten obscenities in response. I then respond with "that's PART of owning a dog! You're disgusting." It's possible that I threw some extra words in my response, too. I can't help myself...I can't bring myself to be civil in the face of a behavior I find so offensive.

From me: I sometimes yell “Dude, really?!” to guys peeing in my alley. It doesn’t seem to have any effect.

Also from me: Once I called out “You need to stop at stop signs!” to a bicyclist who sailed through an intersection and almost clipped my dog and me. “Yeah, yeah!” he yelled back at me.

One more: I was walking down the sidewalk on the right side, ie, the correct side. This man started barreling down the sidewalk on my side the wrong side, for him. For some reason I decided to take a stand and thought, “I am not moving to the side for this guy! He can’t push me around!” Well, actually, he did push me around, and called me a very bad word. That was a bad time to pick a fight.

Readers, how about you: Do you have stories of trying to enforce the rules of social etiquette only to have it go extremely wrong (or right?) Please try to keep the stories to reacting to someone breaking the law (or unspoken law) and not any that involve reactionary revenge. Remember, you want to feel like the good guy, even if the reaction was bad.