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The Urban Etiquette Handbook

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City Living
How do you walk into your apartment building behind a woman while letting her know you’re not a mugger/rapist?
First, know what you’re dealing with: She fears getting into the elevator with you, she fears your walking up the stairs on her tail, and she fears appearing like she’s rattled by either. The gentlemanly thing to do, then, is to make a concerted effort to avoid all of the above. In an elevator building, find a reason to hang back and let the doors close on her alone. In a walk-up building, however, fiddling at your mailbox will just force her to adopt a more panicked pace. Consider answering a pretend cell-phone call: “Hi, Mom!”

If mentioning your connection to a famous person is relevant in a conversation, how do you do it without being a jerk?
Don’t mention it at all, of course, unless it’s necessary to preempt a question about how you got a piece of information you otherwise wouldn’t have known, and acknowledge the details of your connection immediately after the drop. As in, “I actually heard from Steven Spielberg—I met him at a Tribeca screening last year that my friend was doing publicity for—that Munich was originally conceived as a farce . . . ” Never first-name-drop (“I heard that from Dave . . . what? Oh, David Letterman”), a reprehensible behavior whose legality is one of the few universally acknowledged downsides of the First Amendment.

Is it okay to smoke pot at a party?
Marijuana is considered by most New Yorkers under a certain age (and over a certain age) to be harmless at the least, and at the most a public good that belongs equally to all people, like radio airwaves and the national parks. Nonetheless, it is always imperative to ask the host before lighting up any sort of THC delivery system, and consumption is always forbidden if there are children or teenagers present, or if anyone in the room is 30 years older than someone else in the room. An exception to the latter rule exists, however, if the elder reveler is overheard discussing a “gig” or relating an anecdote involving Janis Joplin.

What’s the best way to hush someone in a movie theater?
Before actually speaking, you’re obligated to make two meaningful glances or clearly intentioned throat clearings, the second directed at the disruptive viewer’s embarrassed cohorts, if that’s physically possible (and they actually seem embarrassed). Then you can ask, politely, once. After that, if you haven’t received a groundswell of support from surrounding patrons, you really have no choice but to just move, because an argument is only going to inflict the disruption on everyone else. Or, to ensure that you can avoid the situation completely, limit your moviegoing to midday, midweek screenings at the UA Battery Park City 16 cinema.

How should you indicate to a cabdriver/person sitting next to you on a bus that you don’t want to chat?
Give a few polite yet terse one-word answers delivered with a tooth-free smile. If that doesn’t work, try—again with a demure smile—inserting your iPod earphones and then staring somberly out the window, or closing your eyes and rubbing your temples as if you have a migraine. Consider telling a little white lie: You’re sorry, but you’re coming up on an important test/presentation/audition that you need to think about. If all else fails, pretend you have fallen asleep or died.

What do you do when you find money/a purse/a phone in a cab?
Return the purse or phone yourself. If you find loose bills, leave them for the cabdriver, who probably needs the cash more than you. Unless you’re the star of a blockbuster thriller about an ordinary man forced to take extraordinary action by the hand of fate, you’re not going to find more than $20 in a cab anyway.

Is it okay to use wireless if your neighbors don’t password-protect it?
Yes—free wireless is a karmic gift bestowed by the rental gods to make up for all the times you’ve experienced your neighbors’ sexual encounters, arguments, and guitar practice in startling sonic clarity, gotten roaches because you live in the same building as a restaurant, and sampled the tapestry of malodorousness that is the ethnic-food/cigarette-smoke/pet-by-product–scented apartment hallway. Your only obligation as a wireless sharer is to avoid massive bandwidth-hogging downloads.

How do you break up with your stylist?
The concept of breaking up with a stylist is going the way of breaking up with a casual romance. Nowadays, you don’t. Instead, you do what the best daters do: You don’t break up, you take a break. Just don’t call back for a while. For all your stylist knows, you’re in London or L.A. for a bit.

How do you make appropriate donations when you’ve got 30 friends asking you to buy tickets to their fund-raisers?
Close friends and bosses get yeses no matter what: If that many people are asking, either you can afford it or you’re social-climbing and it’s time to pay the piper. For everyone else, feel free to offer to write a check directly to their charity, which will test whether they are genuinely philanthropic or just looking to ostentatiously fill three tables and move up the fund-raiser-scene totem pole. And if you really can’t afford it, tell them you limit your giving to [insert a group of charities you actually give money to].

What’s the best way to get someone off the treadmill/bike/elliptical when they’ve gone over the 30-minute limit?
Unless it’s a known repeat offender who feels like he owns the gym, face-to-face is the first course of action. Cardio-trainers can enter a trancelike state of intense Just Do It–ness that leaves them unaware of the time, and will be perfectly obliging when snapped out of their cardio-delirium. But if you ask and are rebuffed, it’s perfectly acceptable to notify the front desk, which is usually staffed by someone with intimidatingly large pectoral muscles for this very reason.

How much locker-room nudity is acceptable?
Nudity is allowable, nay, inevitable, while changing and during showers. Otherwise, if you’re holding something that could easily be used to cover your genitals, cover them.

Is it okay to hit on someone at the gym?
Only on men, and only under the following circumstances: if you’re a gay man, and you know he’s gay too, or if you’re a straight woman and he’s a straight man. And never suggestively lick sweat off a treadmill.

When is it okay to ask a stranger about something in the newspaper he’s holding on the train?
Paper-snooping is acceptable in only two situations: (1) if it’s a news story of sufficient importance that the next people you see outside the train will be talking about it, or (2) if it’s sports news with commiseration potential. (“Traded who for hot-dog-concession equipment? Fuckin’ Isiah.”) Even in the random event you see an article mentioning your own name, you probably shouldn’t say anything: Either it’s in a flattering light and you’d be boastfully massaging your own ego, or it’s in a non-flattering light and the person reading the paper probably doesn’t want to know that he’s just met the Park Avenue Pervert.

If you see someone litter on the street, should you let it go because he might be crazy and kill you if you say something?
It depends on where you are—if the surroundings are unfamiliar, keep to yourself. If it’s your neighborhood, say in a forceful, faux-friendly tone, “I’m sorry, sir, you dropped something. Can I get that for you?” In all likelihood, he won’t pick it up, and you probably won’t want to, either, but the proper message has been sent.

How do you ensure the silence of your doorman after he witnesses an indiscretion on your part?
Don’t do anything rash like offering him a bribe the next day. If he’s a gossip or a snitch, you’re toast anyway and a bribery attempt will only worsen matters (“Then he tried to give me 50 bucks . . . ”). But chances are he’s not, and you gain points for exhibiting trust. Simply give him the usual nod when you see him again, and maybe a slightly extended bit of polite eye contact to acknowledge your new familiarity. Then, at the next natural opportunity, reward his loyalty. Maybe the firm’s Yankees tickets are available. Or, if Christmas isn’t too far off, slip him an additional 30 percent in the bonus envelope. Nothing needs to be said—it’s his job.


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