Batman and friend in Tijuana
I still get all red-faced and flummoxed when I think back to the first time I ever made the mistake of holding the door open for someone in San Diego. I cannot for the life of me remember where I was (this was years ago), but I do remember that the door was one of those heavy byproducts of industrialized bureaucracy that will forever conjure the hallways of public school in my mind’s nostalgia. The ones with the metal bar across the midsection that opens with a thwack when one leans into it. Are you picturing it? So as I’m exiting the building, I thwack the sucker open, pass over the threshold, and let my fingers linger on the door in the universal — or so I thought — gesture that I was passing the weight onto the person behind me. Only that person just walked right on through. Like some dim-witted highfalutin lord, so oblivious to the toil of his servants that he thinks doors open by magic in his path. So did the next person. And the next. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked me in the eye. It was like they didn’t even know how. I finally let the weight of the door go. It swung and thwacked into a girl too mascara deep in the cat video on her phone to see the giant thing coming. She called me an “asshole.” I hissed at her, but really, I was hissing at everyone.
Maybe I’m still hissing. Maybe this story about a door justifies my dismay at an imagined transgression. Perhaps I am just hissing into the wind. It doesn’t matter, because nothing can stop me from using it as a launching point for a conversation about manners, politeness, and how we treat strangers. It’s time we had a come-to-Jesus moment, San Diego. Y’all are rude.
I admit that it very well could be me. Perhaps after a youth spent sippin’ sweet tea and saying “Yes, ma’am” in the land of Southern hospitality, my calibration is all askew and poorly tuned. But you have to understand the discrepancies with which I’m having to come to terms. There, you smile, wave, and say hello to friends and strangers alike on the street. Here, I smile at someone on the street, and if they don’t simply pretend to not see me, they grimace and clutch their valuables tighter.
Just a couple of months back I had to get myself downtown to the First National Bank Center building to expedite a passport renewal. So, as I’m standing at a crosswalk on Columbia Street at 7 a.m., staring at the red hand and stifling my Tijuana-perfected proclivity for jaywalking, I look around to find something to daydream about. Even though I’m surrounded on all sides by the buzzing of self-important blowhards with their Bluetooth ear-pieces and half-empty briefcases, I manage to lock eyes with the well-to-do woman standing just next to me. I smiled at her and she looked away without so much as a facial twitch. I looked away and around until our eyes managed to meet again.
“Mornin’,” I said.
“I don’t have any money,” she blurted.
Where I hail from, if you ask for directions, it’s irrelevant how ignorant the beseeched-upon party may be of the local geography, for it’s only a matter of time before getting you there is a team effort with a group of strangers arguing over which shortcut is the shortest. Here, it’s almost like directions are a secret that are to be guarded behind a wall of feigned ignorance and disdain.
I’m not making this up. I live in TJ, cross rarely, and have no access to a computer that tells me where to turn while I’m driving. As a result, there is a 100 percent chance that I will be lost for at least a handful of minutes every time I come to San Diego. In the no fewer than 20 different people I have asked for navigational help, I have received one of two answers only: “I don’t know,” which is ironclad in its desired effect of getting rid of me, and “Why don’t you look it up on your phone?” to which I reply that I don’t have one, to which the entreated upon shrugs before shoving the earbud back into his head. And these aren’t complicated or obscure directions I’m after. When I asked a Point Loma gas station attendant on Catalina Boulevard if he could point me in the direction of Ocean Beach, he shrugged his shoulders. In a La Jolla Home Depot, I asked a beard with an orange apron attached to it if he could tell me roughly how to get to Interstate 5. He said that he could not. I have since purchased a map.
I could say that I am projecting all of that which I find unacceptable about myself onto my environment in a narcissistic tantrum of indignant flailing and self-righteous screaming. But I’m not going to.
Nor am I insisting on politeness. Truly. I could argue the virtue of good manners over rudeness ad nauseum, but I possess neither the hubris nor the desire to get others to ascribe to my worldview. Plus, rudeness can be charming. Look at New York City. Rudeness is such a mythical part of Yankee culture that a surly turn of phrase goes hand-in-hand with a bad comedian’s shtick when he’s doing a New York accent. And it’s hard to have any qualms with New York’s commodified approach to strangers. All of the cards are on the table. If you don’t know how to cross the street, walk on the sidewalk, or order a sandwich when the deli is busy, the city is going to be rude at you, and you aren’t allowed to act like it isn’t on you. It’s a social contract. To be frank, New Yorkers go a long way toward proving something I was always taught growing up — if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
Dancing around the fringes of a detached relationship to one’s fellow man is a half-baked approach to a collective social identity. Placing yourself above all human interaction that is not deemed explicitly necessary or planned is entitled. And rude. Acting as though there is a greater power at work forcing your hand toward a stark social indifference is cowardly. And rude. Pretending that you can’t see people in the hopes of slinking away without having to sully your delicately constructed disposition is passive aggressive. And rude. To couple all of these idiosyncrasies with specious tales of the welcoming spirit of America’s Finest City is either deluded or dishonest.
Most San Diegans I’ve spoken to about this tend to agree with me. The closest anyone has ever come to an outright denial is by shoveling the blame somewhere nearby. “Sure, it’s like that in...” Santee, Orange County, West of the 5, ad infinitum, “but not here.” And of course I’ve met friendly strangers. A very personable door man at Soda Bar who chatted with me about his son and other things that got washed away in the beer foam stands out. As do a few interactions I’ve had with patrons and employees alike at Luigi’s. But, to use a phrase I’ve never quite understood, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule. And, for the record, none of them were originally from San Diego.
I’ve spoken at length about this phenomenon to a friend of mine who is both a San Diegan and a college professor. He lays a large part of the blame on Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl migration, and any and all of the many historical instances where California is purported to be the land where the grass is greener, the sunshine is shinier, and the hens lay soft-boiled eggs. All you had to do was get here, stake a claim, and then protect your plot from anything that would wrench it out of the hands of the very one who made it valuable. This social construct is fertile soil for cultivating a passive-aggressive distrust of neighbors and new faces alike.
It makes sense. But just because a phenomenon can be rationalized, it doesn’t mean that it has to be actualized. Take Tijuana, for example. You would be hard-pressed to find an average San Diegan willing to argue that America’s Finest City is more dog-eat-dog than its across-the-border counterpart. Leave a phone unattended in TJ, and it will be gone forever in a matter of seconds. Park your car downtown on the street at night and you can expect to come back to an empty space, or at the very least, a hole where your battery used to be. As a rule, your house is almost guaranteed to be broken into and robbed at some point, as meth can turn even the smallest and highest of windows into an effortless point of entry. Then, when any or all of these things happen to you, no one will offer you even a modicum of sympathy.
All of these examples and more contribute to my over-generalized observation that tijuanenses are wary and distrustful of strangers, especially when those strangers are street people — of which there are many. And yet, somehow, people still manage to be polite to each other. To smile at someone is to have that smile returned. To wander into a group of friends is to kiss every woman on the cheek and to press the flesh with every man (unless you’re a woman, in which case you just kiss everyone).To walk through a part of town where people know your face — if not your name or your business there — is to wade through an exhausting onslaught of greeting rituals and questions about the often solitary fact that any given acquaintance may know about you. The one fact that all of the vendors on Revolución I pass on a daily basis know about me is that I have a charming dog named Batman who accompanies me to the restaurant most days. And on the days Batman isn’t with me — even when I’m carrying garafones or boxes full of produce or armfuls of whole chickens — I walk down the sidewalk through a chorus of “Where’s Batman!?”
“It must be Batman’s day off!”
“What? Batman’s not here? Well, it’s good he gets some rest!”
And I’m obligated to respond to every single one of them, otherwise I’m being a jerk. In the block and a half from the lot where I park my car to the front door of the restaurant, I will shake hands and exchange greetings with no fewer than six people. Every day. And that’s the minimum.
Sure, it can sometimes feel tedious. But I would never trade it for the alternative north of the gate. The focus is on what is shared. The effort is spent nurturing that which binds people together as a community rather than what individualizes us and tricks us into feeling superior (or inferior?) to everyone around us. Even when there is no meat on the bone, the song and dance of pretending like we give a shit about each other manages to cultivate a world where it’s easier to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, we are only as good as the sum of all of our parts.
In order for a community to function, trust is imperative. And the smaller the community, the more calloused and weather-worn that trust has to be. Tijuana is the most enormous small town I’ve ever experienced. Face-to-face is the only way business gets done. Live here, get to know a few people, and it’s only a matter of time before your social circle, however small, begins to Venn diagram with anyone and everyone that eats tacos or sips coffee or guzzles caguamas. And these fringe encounters are ripe with passive aggression — eye-contact of mutual acknowledgment is followed by a determined charade where each party pretends they have no idea who the other is. As far as I’ve been able to tell, there is nothing to be done other than to hunker down and resign yourself to this long butt-sniffing phase full of posturing and sideways glances. Eventually your circle expands, your fringe grows, and those who once greeted you enthusiastically as a stranger will lump you in the no-man’s land of awkward semi-acquaintance until you pass whatever invisible test I have yet to figure out. Then it’s back to hand-slapping and cheek-kissing and no such thing as saying hello without a follow-up conversation about anything and everything.
“So?” you may be asking. “And?” Truthfully, I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to drop-kick my soapbox in the hopes that I’ll fall to the ground and crack my jawbone. But all I’m trying to communicate is this: go to the In-N-Out on Mile of Cars Way off Interstate 5 in National City. It does not matter what time, as they seem always to be slammed. Now watch the patio door. Sooner or later, one unfortunate employee is going to get caught holding that door open for customers. People will stream in. People will stream out. No one will make eye contact with the employee. No one will say thank you. Everyone will be a hodgepodge of hungry and expectant and overfed and oblivious. To the masses, it seems the employee is nothing more than a moving piece of the turnstile to and from the feeding trough. Watch the spectacle and channel some empathy for your fellow man. Think about what the briefest moments of eye-contact and a “thank you” could potentially mean to that employee. Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, look up from your phone, look another person in the eyeballs, and use your mouth to communicate gratitude. Communities don’t just materialize; and if they did, they wouldn’t be worth a damn.