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At what point does decency morph into an aural assault invitation? And when is it then appropriate for said decency to mutate into disdain? And for God’s sake, can we all agree on a universal plan to manage/extinguish it? These are genuine public issues that, continuing as unidentified and unenforced conundrums, will inevitably breed a new kind of twisted and hostile version of an “acceptable” social milieu.  For example, “How are you?” in no way requires a thoughtful response. A thoughtful response is a waste of time. It is regretful to the instigator, and plainly disrespectful. Rather, the acceptable answer to this inauthentically polite query is a perfunctory nod and “how ya doin?” At this point it is very important to break eye contact, drop your shoulder and keep it movin’. Because once we start pretending to care about the real answer, uncomfortable conversationalists will never stop. They’ll never learn the rules which aren’t legally, but ought to be, in place 

I’m sure violations of these rules occur all the time, all over the country. Never more had it begun rearing its head, however, into horrifying existence, as it did when I moved to the South. Perhaps such transgressions exist in the North, but I had always been more preoccupied with my own assholery and social tip-toeing to notice. A conversation in New Jersey, wherein a two-word answer would suffice, a guy might grant you a grunt. In North Carolina though? That same two-word answer is stretched like taffy over a candy hook made from your brittle, dwindling patience. Much like taffy, their words are stretched and elongated, becoming thinner and less substantive with each pull, while cavities slowly and painfully form.

Apparently in North Carolina the invitation of “How ya doin” need not be signed, sealed, and delivered. No, no, no. In the balmy October of the South, just existing in a space warrants no-knock access to your attention and headspace. Let us set the scene… 

I sat for too long in a doctor’s waiting room, reading. On the other side of the room, at my nine-o’clock, a 65-year old white woman with silver fly-aways made herself known by a diet coke can full of factors. From my seat I heard her gargling coughs. They were deep and wet in a way a girl can appreciate, and undoubtedly caused by her smoking at least a carton of Parliaments a day. She sported nose tubes that seemed to connect to nothing, and initially hobbled through the threshold with a cane and a silent struggle. A metaphorical silence of course, as the coughing was perpetual from the start. 

Sitting to my right, comfortably in my periphery, was an able-bodied white man in apparent health. He was about the age of the female smoker but the two could not have been more different.  Let’s call him Craig and her Joanne– Jo, if you will. When Craig entered the building he walked right over to the receptionist’s window. He presented his paperwork and the woman in scrubs, Rhonda, for our purposes, went to work on her computer. Now, apologies to any HIPPA enforcement agents out there, but the window of glass does nothing to prevent the rest of the waiting room from eavesdropping. The furthest chair is fifteen feet away and other than a TV with looped new clips of “how to incorporate greens into your diet” and “a patient with diabetes dies every seven seconds” there was no obstruction of sound.

The free air space proved so much more frustrating than informative, and this is why we need rules. I didn’t hear about this guy’s weird growth or incontinence or shitty blood pressure. I learned, instead, that he is a perpetrator of multiple social-felonies and should be put away from the public forever. After Rhonda the receptionist’s “thank you,” he stayed put at the window to engage in assault. Yes, I know the climate and yes, I am selecting my incendiary verbiage with care. This. Was. Assault.

“When’s this mask thing gonna let up, huh? It’s eighty-six degrees and I gotta wear it while I work outside!” Craig didn’t care about masks then and he doesn’t care about the masks now. Or maybe he does, but that isn’t why he was talking about it. He was just filling air; stuffing to the seams miniscule pillows of conversation to ease his own discomfort at what was once just innocent silence, a polite absence of sound. I know this because at Rhonda’s lack of intrigue, he continued, “My mamma is out in the country. She doesn’t understand new food, so I go out there to eat with her when she’s lonely.” 

Oh Craig, I thought. Does he go to help her understand the new food? Is the new food the cause of her loneliness? Does she miss her old food? And what new food are we talking here? Was Craig’s mother just woken from a vampiric slumber and now summons assistance with Lean Cuisine? WHAT IS THE NEW FOOD, CRAIG? I had so many questions.  I never did find out though, because at Rhonda’s radio-silence, he awkwardly forged ahead with more relevant small talk. Opening his wallet for his copay he suggested that he “ought to be getting a flu shot this season, right?” I’m not sure Rhonda recognized his rhetorical tone, because she finally caught interest enough to respond,  “Oh, would you like your flu shot? We can do that during today’s appointment!” “No, no,” Craig explained, “I don’t want my arm to hurt.” With a meek “…okay…” from Rhonda, Craig lumbered away and lowered himself into a chair at my two-thirty. He kept his eyes forward and nose, for the most part, in his own business. 

Meanwhile, Joanne over there was hacking up a storm. A tornado, to be exact; one that transported her out of Kansas, to a self-sustainable yellow brick road of mucous. Our old girl Jo was on and off the phone, talking and laughing to herself, but politely contained all the contents of her brain deep inside, with an airtight cap and a six-digit combination lock. Her sinus molecules may have been spewed but her thoughts were not, and I appreciated this about her. 

I learned by her last phone call that Jo wasn’t from around here. One could easily hear that she didn’t speak with any sort of accent, though that isn’t uncommon for the less redneck natives. Juxtaposed with Craig’s mumbling drawl, her language was crystal clear and frank as fuck. Jo offered a job to the stranger on the other end of the phone, and was as transparent as you’d expect from a Northerner, “Don’t you dare accept unless you’re serious, this has fallen through four times before and I won’t be made a fool of.” I was given no inkling as to what the job entailed, as Jo possessed no performative bone on her body. If Craig was in her position, he’d have turned to tell me about how his stubborn mother needs to accept this part-time job offer at Panera, in order to immerse herself in twenty-first century food and culture, being a vampire and all. 

Jo then started breaking down the commute from the Path in JC over to Liberty State Park, or the WTC, “or one of those, who remembers?”  Recognizing the NY/NJ transit-ese, my eyes lit up. Suddenly Jo’s coughing bothered me less, her loud phone call became endearing, and I stopped wondering where those damn nose tubes were leading. Because now she was from the North. One of us, I thought. I marveled as she caned her way to Rhonda’s window, not for small talk, but to sanitize her hands and empty an entire tree-limb’s worth of tissues from the soon-to-be-empty box. The threat to the environment worried me not, for Jo is a New Yorker (or better yet, from Jersey), and I’m sure she knows what she’s doing. 

The army of tissues, it turned out, was not for her tube-occupied nostrils.  I never saw the spider, but heard the thump thump thump of her trying to murder it. With her cane. It was quite a jarring sight, actually. “Now that is a big spider,” Jo remarked aloud, but privately. With this new information I smiled and chuckled to myself. Something about the sight of an aging Northern woman with a cane and oxygen attempting to annihilate this creature in a doctor’s waiting room. Craig would have let us know about the presence of the spider and then stomped on it in some barbaric execution of manners-meets-masculinity. 

As I turned my head, eyes bright and lips curled beneath my mask, Craig’s gaze briefly latched onto mine. Audibly sighing and shaking his head, Craig gestured as if we were in this together. “Can you believe this woman,” his eyes suggested. Dude, you don’t even know, I thought, I am SO on her side. I turned my attention back to my book. Though both born during Eisenhower, Jo conducted her morning according to how she felt, reacting to what happened around her. I believe Craig would have had the same morning, regardless of events, acting instead of reacting. Walk in, make small talk, be polite, mention mama, eyes front, don’t bother anyone. Ironically, Craig’s version of manners is contingent on the mindless suffering of others. We need not assault the aural orifice of others to avoid awkwardness of our own silent suffering.

So we need rules. Like most legislation, the states can decide for themselves where to draw the line and what the punishment should be. I don’t think the death penalty would be appropriate for a minor transgression, but then, we are in the South.  If marijuana possession, which you keep to yourself, warrants 45 days in prison and a one thousand dollar fine, then what’s a short stint with a court-mandated muzzle? Craig is not a bad guy, he just can’t read a room. Until all the legal kinks are worked out I hope his next doctor’s appointment is full of other selfishly polite Southerners with whom he can share tales of ma in the country. And I hope Jo moves back up North, takes me with her, offers me that mystery job, and I’ll never let her down.

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I just caught myself (on my job) speaking with an entirely deep country accent. 

I’m originally from Chicago, lol. How did become like this??

All though to be honest I do appreciate the Southerness of calling people Honey, Dear, Sweetheart, Honey, etc., oh yeah I’m deep in that too lol.

I have to tell ppl when I introduce myself that I have a habit of calling them that before I actually speak or else they look at me weirdly.

I sorta type and send messages how I speak so if you get a message from me that reads Honey, Sweetie, or anything like that just know I say it in the heart of love

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