Has Our Rudeness Reached New Heights In Philly?

Living in a society where (almost) no one follow the rules

So I came back.

I left Philly in October to answer the latest siren’s song in New York, where I had lived from 1998 to 2005. But Philly being Philly we always seem to come back, and in the end I was no different. (Clearly.) But a very funny thing happened on this return trip to the city. I learned something very, very unexpected.

Our rudeness had gotten worse.

New York is the one that always gets the “rude” rap, the Mount Olympus of bad behavior. And surely, if you’re in Manhattan long enough you learn that it’s a place where if you don’t walk quickly enough, the sidewalks rise up and bite you. But basically, the rule of thumb is: As long as you keep it moving, you’re fine. Otherwise, people give up their seats for pregnant women and small children on the subways. Men hold doors for women going into office buildings. And everyone tips 20 percent at a decent restaurant.

In only eight months away I’d forgotten it doesn’t always work that way here, and I have to tell you, it’s taken a bit of the wind out of the sails on this return voyage. And it’s not just in the city, either. It’s regional.

Case in point: Last weekend I was on the boardwalk in Ocean City. It was almost noon, and as it does every day, the loud speaker system crackled to life and some cranky septuagenarian announced that bike-riding hours were over, and that all bicyclists had to immediately leave the boardwalk at the next off-ramp.

I stood there and watched as bicycle after bicycle—and the occasional surrey—whizzed by me. Everyone had heard the announcement, no question. But in 15 minutes I did not see a single bicyclist leave the boardwalk. Instead they continued pedaling by, weaving in and out of families frantically trying to stay out of the way, the cyclists’ collective faces all blaring one message: Those rules? They don’t apply to us. No wonder they’re now being ticketed in Center City.

Now this whole phenomenon transcends bicycles. It’s become something of a national epidemic, as our leaders (a term used loosely) in Washington prove. Everyone knows that the debt ceiling has to be raised and that some combination of cuts and revenue increases is the only sensible option, and yet the sniping and bickering continues, with more than one politico drawing the famed “line in the sand.” Because, well, the rules—in this case, the one that says that governance requires actually working with people with different ideas than you to come up with solutions—don’t apply to them.

Standing in Ocean City that day I couldn’t help but wonder, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, when did civility die? When did we stop showing up on time and start riding the shoulder on I-95? When did good manners take the exit ramp off of our collective boardwalk?

I suppose there are lots of things to blame, ranging from the depersonalization of society through technology to the hiring of Arlene Ackerman. (If she ends up with a DROP payment, I think we might jump the shark from being uncivil to downright riotous. But that’s another story.) And perhaps it’s just something so much larger than us, part of what the political commentator Pat Buchanan once called the “coarsening of the culture,” to be expected when the American public can name more members of the Kardashian family than members of the Supreme Court.

And yet, I’m not ready to give up, at least not yet. While my blood boils at the “the rules don’t apply to me” crowd that appears to grow larger and more intrusive each day, I can’t bring myself to join them, to bring 25 items into the “10 items or less line” at the Acme or cut off the other car barreling out of the Citizens Bank Park parking lot. Like Dickens’ Fezziwig, I seem destined to cling to the old ways, even if I end up dying out with them. And I take some small comfort in the fact that there may be more of us left here in Philadelphia than I realized. On the way back from lunch with a colleague the other day, we watched as a woman tripped on the sidewalk and fell, some 50 feet in front of us. As we were about to bolt into action to help her, we watched as no fewer than a dozen people came swarming to do just that—from across the street and out of a restaurant; one guy even jumped out of his car in the middle of traffic.

She was fine in the end, thankfully. But knowing that you can take a tumble in Philadelphia and still find yourself surrounded by Good Samaritans in this brittle, “what’s in it for me?” age? That’s better.