In my experience, most people who grew up in the South just naturally operate on AC. Not Alternating Current (though I know a few folks who stay wired all the time), but Automatic Courtesy. Such as: if you meet a stranger, regardless of age, the salutations “Sir” and “Ma’am” go without saying.
I took this for granted until once upon a time when I worked for a week in New York City. Because it was late July and the middle of a heat wave, I ran out of deodorant pretty fast. Toothpaste, too. So I stopped into a small newsstand/sundries shop on the ground floor of a skyscraper and bought some. The young lady at the counter said to me pleasantly, “Would you like these in a bag?” “No, ma’am,” I replied, and she fixed me with a non-pleasant look of razor-blade intensity.
“Let me tell you something,” she said calmly. “I am not a [expletive deleted] ‘ma’am.’ All right?”
“Ah,” I said, as I made my exit. “Sorry about that...” I had to bite my tongue to keep from appending “ma’am” to my apology.
After that, I kept my mouth shut while walking around Manhattan, but I still got in trouble. That same day, I stopped to open an office door for a small woman carrying a huge briefcase. The look I got was more spiteful than the one from the deodorant-and-toothpaste lady, and she refused to move until I preceded her through the door.
By this time, I’d decided that people up there were just in a crabby mood from having to work in such a crowded, hot city. But that theory was shot down a few days later when my rental car was passing through the pleasant, un-crowded countryside of New York state and I got a serious hankering for a Diet Coke.
I pulled into a small service station, got out and looked around. There were no vending machines out front. I went inside, and there were none there, either. Without thinking, I asked the gentleman at the cash register, “Do y’all not have a drink machine?” He looked at me as if I’d wandered in from some mental facility. “[Expletive deleted], no!” he said. “If you want a drink, you go to a bar!”
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Southerners don’t use cuss-words. But at least we wait until we get to know you better. I only bring all this up because, upon returning from New York City to Alabama, I reverted to running on Automatic Courtesy and have done so ever since. The only thing that makes that a problem, these days, is my personal demographic.
I’m at the particular stage of life where, if a stranger were asked to describe me, 99 out of 100 would shrug and answer, “Some old guy.” (The other one out of the hundred would answer, “Huh? Whut? Who?”)
And everybody in the South agrees that it’s only common courtesy to open doors for old guys — particularly if the door hinges have an extra-strong spring, etc., etc. I long ago got accustomed to older people calling me “sir,” since my hair started turning white in my 20s. But it’s taken me a while to feel comfortable with people opening doors for me. One thing that’s eased the transition is that, between hellacious arthritis and occasional balance problems, sometimes I actually NEED the help, which means I much appreciate the occasional door-opening gesture. I don’t LIKE it, but I appreciate it.
I’m finding that the only time tension arises, in the process, is when two similarly old guys approach a door at exactly the same moment. Who opens it for whom? Especially when both guys’ brains are in Automatic Courtesy mode?
In such situations, I can see in the other guy’s eyes that his mind is doing the same calculations mine is. First, a quick head-to-toe glance for any brace-like appliances. If none, then a general assessment for physical frailty, overall health, current mood, and countless other visual and intuitive clues.
At which point other people are waiting patiently to use the danged door. What happens next, between the two staring old guys, is the equivalent of flipping a coin without a coin. I break the spell (or he breaks the spell) by giving an almost imperceptible nod of thanks, he opens the door (or I do), and life goes on as before.
Whether the old-guy process works the same way in New York City, I have no idea. As an old guy I once knew used to say, “I’ll just have to burn that bridge when I come to it.”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com and is archived afterward on his website.