Brian O’Neill: Something stinks about how people act in public now

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In the span of a couple of days last week, I had two unique experiences.

While riding the T from the North Side to Downtown, the guy sitting next to me, for whom I’d moved over, asked if the train went to Mount Washington.

Half looking up from my newspaper, I began to explain his options. But I was having trouble. A stench was gaining power around me. Not since my seventh-grade art teacher, Mr. Horn, leaned over my desk to teach me the finer points of perspective had I encountered such body odor.

Mr. Horn could make a freight train take a dirt road.

Anyway, when I made more than a sidelong glance, I saw that my rowmate had his shoe off and was adjusting his sweaty dress sock with great care. This was not some bum, mind you, but a businessman dressed to the nines blithely stinking up the car. And, though the fumes made any mental math difficult, I deduced he had one shoe yet to go.

Yet I said nothing. What could one say? What could one do? Exiting a moving subway car beneath a major river is discouraged by the Port Authority.

Thankfully, I was able to flee at the next stop. But this would not be the last breach of propriety that I would encounter that week. I went to the post office to mail a package, and the clerk asked, “May I help you?”

That would have been fine had she not been trimming her nails with a large pair of postal scissors as I stood across the counter.

Flashing back on my subway ride, I tried to look at the bright side: I had no reason to believe her shoes were off, which meant she’d probably do only her fingernails.

We had an otherwise pleasant exchange and I concede I may be overreacting. One whiff of eau de Florsheim and a gross encounter of an absurd kind should not put a man off his feed. But I’m remembering a question Gene Collier asked in a column in May  — “Isn’t anybody even embarrassed anymore?” — and I’m finding the answer is: Not as many as I remember.

Take dress. I’m no fashion plate. On a good day, my belt matches my shoes and my tattered collar nicely accents my frayed pant cuffs. Yet there’s a part of me that regrets not having worked in the days when almost everyone would dress up before venturing Downtown, even if I know this mainly from old black-and-white photos and I don’t even own a fedora.

But did we have to go this far in the other direction? Too often, I’ve seen people dressed in a fashion that previous generations wouldn’t have dared wear from their bedrooms to their living rooms. With all the lights out. And the shades drawn.

I realize I am in full curmudgeon mode now. I’m sure I’ve done things in my life, maybe my recent life, that have given offense. I learned only through a front-page story last week that reclining an airline seat can be, to any tall person sitting behind you, as annoying as a stone in the shoe.

But “don’t cut your fingernails at a public counter” and “don’t go all Pepe Le Pew in a crowded subway car” — those seem to go without saying.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing a breakdown in standards. It’s reached the point that even having standards puts you at risk of being branded with that all-purpose modern putdown, “elitist.” (I’m so old I remember when being called “among the elite” was a compliment.)

What say you, gentle reader? This page regularly runs “Random Acts of Kindness.” Might we get just as many letters if we went with “Random Acts of Rudeness”?

Let me know, if that’s not impolite to ask. Either way, I’m not going to hold my breath. That is unless the businessman with the loose shoes sits down next to me again.

Brian O’Neill: or 412-263-1947.

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