Day 80: the discomfort of strangers

This is a long post. So you should get a cup of coffee first and then curl up on the sofa. That’s what I would do.

In many ways I like the custom of greeting strangers you pass on the street, a custom that distinguishes LA from London (I would write “that distinguishes America from Britain” but I’m wary of generalizing). In my neighborhood, it’s usual to greet someone you pass on the street or at least to make eye contact and smile. To refrain from doing so or to observe a passerby refraining from meeting your eye is to feel that you are, to use an expression that brings back traumatic memories of secondary school, either “blanking,” or being “blanked” by, your fellow pedestrian.

By comparison, when I walked to school in London there were people I passed on the street every day for years, and we literally never made eye contact nor acknowledged the other’s presence.

It reminds me of the conceit of a book I’m rereading at the moment for the Fictional Worlds seminar, China Miéville’s The City and the City. The premise of the book is that there are two cities that occupy the same physical space but which are completely distinct culturally, socially, linguistically, governmentally, and in all other aspects. In each city it is taboo and in fact illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other city’s inhabitants, architecture, or any other feature. So if a Besź citizen passes an Ul Qoman citizen, each on their own distinct street but “grosstopically,” that is, in terms of their physical location, in the same space, then they are culturally and legally obliged to “unsee” each other.

Londoners, I think, are quite adept at unseeing each other in their daily lives; it’s not a form of rudeness but, on the contrary, a form of politeness.

I’ve adapted and, in Santa Monica, I happily greet my fellow pedestrians in my neighborhood. In fact, I enjoy this low-level sociability.

But there are other customs of intimacy-between-strangers that I find disconcerting.

Let me give you some examples.

Last week I walked into a local salon where I get my eyebrows done. The owner and the receptionist were chatting about a male customer who had been there earlier and who observed to them that they both looked exhausted.

I was appropriately aghast and we ended up having a general conversation about “things men who don’t know you think it’s OK to observe about the way you look.” My example was the man next to me in the line at the pharmacy at Rite-Aid earlier that same morning, who told me, and I quote, “you’re lucky you have the skin color to be able to wear orange” (I was wearing an orange T-shirt). This is, I suppose, a compliment (but is it? I don’t know; it was such an oddly-formulated observation), but I was stumped as to what to say in response (“Yes, I am lucky”? “Thank you”? I wish I could say I had a witty comeback, but I did not. I think I said something like, “Oh! Um … well … thanks?”)

Actually, there is probably nothing particularly Los Angeles- or even American-specific about these examples; they are simply cases of people attempting to make small talk and doing so awkwardly. There is doubtless a sympathetic motive behind the impulse to observe that another person looks tired. But I hope that all of this blog’s readers understand that it is never, in any circumstance, an acceptable observation to make about another person.

OK, here’s another one. A couple of weeks ago I walked to the Music Center café (the café nearest the English department) during my seminar’s mid-morning break. I ordered a cappuccino with a double shot. They had some small dark chocolate bars in a rack by the register and I grabbed one and handed it to the cashier, who, it is worth pointing out, was most likely an undergraduate.

“All right, so the cappuccino with the double shot and the chocolate bar?” she asked.

“Yup,” I answered.

She rang me up and then shot me a quizzical look.

“Bad day?” she asked.

I was a little taken aback. “Uh, no,” I replied frostily, and with as much dignity as I could muster. “No, it is not a bad day, I am half way through my seminar and I wanted some energy for the second half.”

I thought she might follow up with a short lecture on how the caffeine and sugar were sure to induce a midday crash and that then I would really be in for a bad day. But she spared me from further expressions of concern.

Now, maybe you think that “bad day?” was a perfectly innocuous, even kind-hearted query. But I beg to disagree. It’s so cheeky! It implies that buying a chocolate bar is an obvious sign of desperation. And would she have asked a male customer that same question? Isn’t it because the duck-rabbit is a woman that she felt safe concluding that I must be self-medicating with chocolate? [1]

The cashier’s query had the effect of completely inhibiting me from buying chocolate at that café. Ever since that interaction, I now buy, during my seminar break, not a chocolate bar, but the afore-mentioned disgusting vegan cookie, whether as some form of self-punishment or to telegraph to the café’s staff that, actually, I’m having a really terrific day, I really couldn’t say. But you know what’s ironic? I bet that the dark chocolate is in actual fact nutritionally superior to the vegan cookie. It probably has loads of antioxidants and stuff, whereas the vegan cookie just has fibre, and, in addition, is so unsatisfying that I usually have to buy another actual cookie later to alleviate my disappointment.

My experience with the cashier in the café was almost as bad as my experience with the bartender who refused to sell me a diet coke when I was heavily pregnant because he was concerned about the potential effects of aspartame on my unborn child.

No, I’m not joking.

Now, I’m not claiming that aspartame is good for one’s unborn child, but it’s not like I asked for a double whisky and a packet of cigarettes. When I ordered the diet coke he observed something about the negative effects of aspartame on the developing fetus, and I suspect that I probably laughed and said something like, “well I think one coke won’t kill it!” I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I do remember that I had the impression that we were engaged in humorous banter, which culminated with him smiling and saying, “I’m not going to serve you one, you know!” And I laughed because I assumed that he was joking.

But he wasn’t. He just walked away and I was so enraged that I needed an actual drink, and ended up chugging a bunch of tequila shots that were lined up on the bar.

Actually, I didn’t really do that, I just got someone else to buy me a diet coke. But the point is that I might have done that, and then think of how horribly his well-intended do-gooding would have backfired.

Also, I must just add: doesn’t it seem downright un-American, in fact, possibly Communist, to refuse to sell a paying customer a diet coke? I would go so far as to say that he was depriving me of my God-given right, as an American citizen (OK, I wasn’t actually one at the time, but he didn’t know that), to enjoy the bliss that can only be conferred by this product in which the capitalist dynamic of surplus-value so delightfully combines with the libidinal dynamics of surplus-enjoyment, as my old mate Slavov puts it (see “Coke as objet petit a,” pp. 21-22 in The Fragile Absolute).

The final examples, I wish to share with you, dear readers (and I know I’m rather rambling on; thank you for bearing with me!) are not of strangers offering concern or unsolicited advice, but rather simple friendliness. You might think that this would be the most innocuous form of stranger intimacy, but it is actually the one that I find most difficult to handle.

Before I provide examples, let me make an observation about using names. When Americans know a person’s first name, they generally use it. So, if an American who knows my name encounters me, he or she will probably say “hi, duck-rabbit,” as opposed to simply “hi” or “hello”; in fact, my sense is that, over here, if someone who is an acquaintance and who should know your name says “hi” or “hello” without using your name, it is considered curt, if not rude. In Britain, I think the opposite is the norm. The name goes without saying. Yes, this also means that there’s less pressure on one to actually remember anyone’s name.

So, where am I going with this? Well, in an extension of this custom, many businesses suppose that greeting regular customers by name is appealing. But I for one find it disconcerting when people I don’t know well use my name. It makes me feel awkward in a number of different ways.

For instance, at the exercise studio where I used to regularly take barre class, they make it a point of pride that they greet every client by name. There was one young woman who worked at the front desk who would greet me especially energetically, and she always remembered my name. “Hi duck-rabbit!!!” she would trill every time I stumbled in at some godforsaken early morning hour. I would groggily mutter in response, “ … oh, uh, hi,” feeling guilty that I didn’t know her name. Every time she sunnily greeted me I would think to myself, “I really must find out what her name is.” But I didn’t. And at a certain point this I decided that enough time had elapsed without me asking her name that it was now too late and that asking now would just draw attention to the fact that I hadn’t known it for the last several months. So I never did ask.

But the custom of greeting customers by name is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, my friends, the problem of excessive familiarity goes far deeper. Consider the appalling situation at my dentist’s office. The first time I noticed it was a couple of years ago. I was there for a cleaning. A hygienist I’d never met before came into the waiting room and greeted me warmly.

“Hi duck-rabbit! How have you been? It’s great to see you!”

I was taken aback because I felt reasonably sure that I had never met this particular hygienist before. And yet … slowly but surely, I started to second-guess myself. Because she kept saying things like, “how many kids do you have again?” and “remind me how old they are again?” like we had discussed them on some earlier occasion.

I felt completely nonplussed and started to worry either that I had some kind of amnesia; or that I was just pathologically inattentive. This woman and I had obviously met and had an intimate conversation. But because I’m so self-absorbed, I have no memory of it! God, I am just the worst.

Such was the psychic doubt that engulfed my mind. Except that after a number of similar experiences on subsequent visits it slowly dawned on me that this dental practice simply has some insane and completely misguided policy that states that not only must all employees must greet all patients by name, they must also greet them like long-lost friends.


Until this week, I hadn’t been to barre class for months. But, as part of my effort to resume exercising (doctor’s orders!), I went earlier this week and found that the woman who used to work at the front desk was now teaching the class.

“Duck-rabbit!!!” she practically yelled, as I entered the studio where the class is taught.

“Oh, uh, hi,” I said. It was like we had never been apart!

After the class, when I sheepishly thanked her for the class and said goodbye, she said in a curious tone, at once effusive and yet somehow also flat and affectless: “It’s so good to see you again, duck-rabbit!!!” [2]

Something about the discrepancy between tone and content made me inwardly wince, and the thought that passed through my mind was something like, “when you say ‘it’s so good to see you again, duck-rabbit!!!’ the effusiveness of the statement undermines the very social bonds it seeks to foster, because the discrepancy between your words and what I imagine your true feelings to be throws sharply into relief the treachery of language and reminds me that no words can disguise the fact that we are, each of us, completely alone on this small, dying planet.”

I nearly burst into tears.

But, instead, I smiled as warmly as I could and replied, “you too, Anna!”


[1] Which I wasn’t, as it happens. I only medicate with pure alcohol. Or heroin.

[2] I think she’s an aspiring actress. She’s gonna need to work on that.


Leave a Reply