Him: Are you from New York? Me: Yes. Him: The place is filling up. Me: Uh-huh. Him: There are a lot of people waiting. Me: What's your point? Him: Are you serious? Me: What? Him: Are you serious? Me: What? (We volleyed this a few more times.) Him: You've been sitting in a booth by yourself for an hour. Maybe other people want to sit down. Me: I'm waiting for a friend. Him: Well your friend's not here. Me: Do you own the restaurant? Him: What? Me: Do you own the restaurant? Him: No. Me: Then it's not your concern. Him: Yes it is. Me: No it isn't. Him: What are you, a fucking idiot? (I was stunned.) You've been sitting here? Me: Do you own the restaurant? Him: You're out of your mind. Me: Why don't you leave me alone? Him: What? Me: Why don't you leave me alone?
This concluded our conversation. I returned to the paper, although for the next 10 minutes I kept reading the same sentence. The man got his check. I was prepared to send a bad swear his way when he opened his mouth again. But he didn't. He turned and walked out. "Take care," I said to his back, though he didn't hear, or pretended not to.
Naturally, 30 seconds after he left, my tardy, physically imposing friend showed up. I wish you could have been here 30 seconds ago, I said, relaying my conversation. I scripted for him what might have transpired had he only arrived sooner:
Me: This gentleman has a problem with the fact that I've held the table so long. Big friend: Oh yeah? Me: Yeah. He thinks I'm a fucking idiot. (I turn to the other guy.) Sir, do you think my friend is a fucking idiot for his role in my holding this table for so long? Him: What?
But of course, this is the tortured rethinking of missed opportunities. I'm something of a pussy when it comes to shouting someone down, much less kicking somebody's ass. The exception, I'm pretty sure, is when defending my family. Earlier this year when my wife was not visibly pregnant, but nonetheless pregnant enough to be dizzy, she took one of the elderly reserved bus seats. I stood over her protectively as the bus quickly filled up. Suddenly, but not unexpectedly, came the disembodied, reedy voice of an older woman, "You're too young to be sitting there."
To which I immediately replied, "She can sit where she goddamn wants to." Not syntactically perfect, but unshaken.
"Well, that's not what the sign says," she said, a little less challengingly. I couldn't see how I could improve on my comeback so I let her have the last word. I resisted saying, "Anyone else have a problem with her sitting there?"
Well, that was me the great defender. I was on my own this time in Chinatown and I'm even more careful since becoming a father three months ago. I look where I'm going now when I cross the street. There's no longer such a thing as a "safe distance" for flipping off drivers who creep into the crosswalk at me. I continue to avoid talking back to insane-looking people on the street who provoke me. I avoid any unnecessary confrontation that could prevent me from growing older with my wife and daughter.
To the woman on the bus, to the dim sum man and all you other self-appointed guardians of courtesy, let me say this: You are no doubt very good at spotting rudeness, but you don't always know what you're talking about. You don't know most of the eight million stories in this city, and most of them are none of your business. My wife, who frequently turned down seats offered by bus riders throughout her pregnancy, shouldn't have to explain to anyone why she's sitting in a reserved seat just because it's not obvious why she's doing it.
And I've been that weary, bitter diner, standing for half an hour or more in the front of the restaurant while some bastard like me takes his sweetass time at a large table. But you know what? People who linger at tables in busy restaurants have probably earned the right to do it every now and then. I've been going to that dim sum place for 11 years. I've dropped a lot of money there. The waiters willingly seated me in the booth that morning. And, most importantly, this was my first outing in three and a half months without my wife and child. My wife was letting me have this time. She thought I deserved it. I would get to read my paper quietly and later have lunch with a friend.
That's my flimsy story. I won't always linger like that because I won't always feel right doing it. But this morning I did.
For your own safety, courtesy guardians, there is a good reason I'm especially careful about confronting people in this city. In case you haven't noticed, there are people living here, both insane-looking and docile-looking like me, who will hit you with a brick, hammer, plunger or broomstick, shoot you, kick you to death or drown you in your own blood just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, never mind getting in their faces. So to that guy at the dim sum place on Saturday, I really mean it: Take care.
And go fuck yourself.