Not long ago, I was getting off a streetcar when one of those road hog cyclists on a fixed-gear bike rammed into me. I was almost at the curb. I assumed traffic had stopped, as it is supposed to, when the streetcar doors folded open. This guy hadn’t. He ran right into the back of my legs with his front tire, almost knocking me to the ground. And he told me to watch where I was going. Living in a big city often means coping with rude, inconsiderate people. As Toronto grows, the stresses of city life increase. Congested highways, crowded transit vehicles, busy pavements, constant construction – all of these things tax our civility.
Amy Alkon, the American author of a new book with the cute title Good Manners for Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck, says it is inevitable in a busy urban environment.
“We can behave badly when we are around strangers, and we’re around strangers almost all the time,” she told The Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen. “This allows people to do stuff they would never do to a neighbour. The guy that’s flipping you the bird in traffic is counting on the fact that he’s never going to see you again.”
Rude people in cities somehow persuade themselves that all those other people around them simply don’t exist – or, at least, don’t merit bothering about.
These rude people are self-declared islands in the urban sea, pursuing their self-interest and supremely indifferent to the effects on the rest of us.The road hog cyclist was like that, but there are many others like him.
My own list of the most obnoxious Torontonians includes:
- People who sit on the outer seat of two-seat benches on transit vehicles, staring at their shoes to avoid eye contact in hopes no one will claim the other seat.
- People who stop their cars in the curb lane during rush hour to pick up a passenger or grab a coffee, even if it means holding up a whole line of traffic behind them. Higher city fines for this offence don’t seem to have stopped them.
- Dog owners who unleash their pets in parks and when the slavering beast leaps on a terrified child say: “Oh, he’s really very friendly.”
- People who drop wads of chewing gum on the ground and turn the sidewalk into a measled mess of black spots.
- Cyclists who ride without lights after dark, often wearing black to make sure they are invisible.
- Pedestrians who wander heedlessly off the curb into traffic as if to say: “I dare you to run me over.”
- People who step on the gas to dodge in front of you from the right lane in heavy traffic, gaining precisely one car length before slowing to a crawl with everyone else.
- People who don’t clear their sidewalks of snow, leaving it to turn to ice and send passersby sprawling.
- People who gun it through yellow lights, blocking oncoming cars that are waiting in the intersection to turn left.
- Taxi drivers who never use their turn signals, leaving the rest of us to guess what they’re up to. Is there an outbreak of cabby’s wrist that makes it impossible for them to flick the signal arm?
- People who refuse to move to the back of the bus or streetcar even if the front is jammed and there is lots of space back there.
What unites these urban louts is a sense of superiority. The road hog on the fixie is so cool, so above lesser forms of mobility, that he need not slow down for the drudges piling off the streetcar. The owner of the “friendly” dog thinks that anyone who might be frightened of his adorable pet is irrational, even if that irrational person is a six-year-old. The cabbies with lazy wrists believe they are the samurai of the roads, a higher caste of motorist that can disregard the rules for ordinary mortals.
Blessedly, these people are the exception. Toronto is a polite, orderly place compared with many other big cities.
Most people follow the simple rules of urban etiquette that keep the modern metropolis functioning, even when there is no one around to enforce them.
Most dog owners pick up after their pets with plastic bags, a relatively new practice, simply because it is expected. Most city dwellers who aren’t the mayor still experience shame.
It is not that way in every city. When I was living in Hong Kong in the 1980s, the government ran a public-service ad urging people not to chuck things off their apartment balconies, a practice that was causing many injuries and deaths. The ad showed a slovenly fellow hurling a spent beer bottle over the balcony railing, only to find out it had struck his own daughter as she came home from school. The officials who made the ad assumed that if they showed the beer bottle hitting a stranger, people wouldn't care much.
Fortunately, most people aren’t like that.
Amy Alkon is off base. Most of us don’t feel we can behave badly around strangers. When that guy rammed me with his bike, everyone getting off the streetcar and passing by on the street knew he was in the wrong. Even as he bombed off through the intersection, I’m sure he felt it. It is that collective judgment that we fear and, by and large, respect.
Those who ignore it deserve a special place in urban hell.