Tuesday, April 26, 2011

We Love Your Dog!

The signs of the city can tell you a lot about what's happening socially. About a decade ago, we started seeing "Shut Up" signs all over the place. Clearly, they were necessary, and so we must assume that people needed to be told to shut up because they were getting louder and louder, caring less and less about their impact on others.

There's another breed of sign that's been cropping up everywhere more recently. It's the "We Love Your Dog" sign. It might also be the "We Love Your Baby" or "We Love You and Your Laptop" sign, but most often it has to do with dogs. ("Pets" really means dogs, since cat people don't usually bring Fluffy on errands.)

Years ago, businesses that sold food had signs on the door that said "No Dogs Allowed." Simple, straightforward, unassailable.

But today, more and more, they say something along the lines of: "We love your dog! Unfortunately, the big bad laws of the land say we can't let your dog inside. Please don't get mad at us--it's not our fault! To placate you and contain your narcissistic rage, here's a bowl of water and some treats. Really, truly, we LOVE your dog. Please don't get mad." (I am paraphrasing.)

You see these signs everywhere--I've collected quite a few--on the doors of big chain stores and little coffee shops. On grocery stores and Chinese restaurants. Many of them come with pictures of cute dogs. See? We really, really like them! (Please don't get mad.)

"Love" is the operative word here. The signs typically say we "love" your dog, pets, etc. Not: we're tolerant, or we don't mind, but we LOVE. The message is: We're not "haters" filled with negativity.

The signs almost always say "your" dog/pets. We love YOUR dog, not dogs in general. "We love dogs" could actually be true, but "We love your dog" is almost impossible. "We don't know your dog, so how could we love it," would be more accurate. But the words "you" and "your" have taken over marketing. They make people feel special, so there it is, the appeasing "your."

And then comes the turn, usually in the form of the word "unfortunately." It has a stammering quality, like a big gulp before the delivery of bad news you're afraid will get you slapped in the face. Don't upset the dog owner!

In this climate, some businesses just want to be the good guy. Like Ricky's, where they don't sell food, and so can allow pets. They make the most of it with this sign, basically saying, "Hey, we're not dog-hating jerks like a lot of other people in this neighborhood. We're cool."

So what are these signs telling us about human interactions in the city today?

It seems obvious that they are revealing a trend: Entitled people with dogs are getting very upset when they walk into a food establishment with their pet and are asked to take the animal outside. Maybe the dog person throws a fit. Maybe they go home and attack the business on their blog or give them a scathing review on Yelp. This happens frequently enough, and causes enough disruption, that the business has been forced to put up an ass-kissing sign.

We see a variation of the sign, though less frequently, with babies and strollers. "We really love your baby" they say, but the fire code says we can't have strollers in here. Again, the subtext is: "Please don't blame us! Please don't get angry! It's not our fault! Blame the government. We are not baby haters."

With good reason they cover their asses--we know what the stroller brigade did to the anti-babies in bars people.

But one of my absolute favorites in this genre of signage comes from a popular coffee shop in Park Slope, the New York neighborhood that is perhaps the epicenter of entitlement, and home to many dogs and strollers. It's a very long, funny, ass-kissing, walk-on-eggshells explanation about why they don't want customers hanging out for hours on their laptops, and it begins, "We're absolutely thrilled that you like us so much that you want to spend the day...and we love having you here, believe you me!"

It goes on to apologize in advance for having to "say something" to people who don't follow the rules, and "we really dislike that sort of thing, it is so not 'us' and makes everyone uneasy." Once again, the message is: Please don't make us be bad guys.

There's something pathetically simpering about all these signs. When did businesses get so afraid to be the heavy? It's like the Mom or Dad who wants to be pals and buddies with their children, rather than the authority figures who say what's what. In fact, I'm inclined to blame those Moms and Dads for the behaviors that led to the necessity for these signs.

Finally, here's how it should be done. This sign--in parent-coddling Park Slope, no less--is not afraid to assert itself and tell it like it is. "This is a doctors office, not a playground!!" But maybe you have to be a needle-wielding M.D. to get away with that?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Cells at Registers

People talk on their cell phones everywhere. We know this. We bear this unbearable fact daily. But one of the more egregious cell-phone uses occurs at the city's countless cash registers. You've seen them. Those people who approach the counter, plop down their purchases, and say nothing to the cashier, all the while yakking to some invisible someone else while the worker silently rings up their wares.

Money changes hands. No one speaks. The consumer behaves as if they are alone in the universe. It's one of the more dehumanizing everyday experiences we can witness.

Some businesses have begun expressing their weariness of such behavior with little signs displayed on their cash registers.

Think Coffee tries the polite approach, "kindly refrain from talking on your cell phone when ordering."

Soy Luck Cafe takes another tack, trying to flip the script, "If you are on the phone at the counter we will pretend that you don't exist." (As you pretend we don't exist.)

In small, parenthetical type, they add, "It's a beautiful world all around you. Be a part of it."

Awhile back, Ken Belson wrote about sidewalk cellphone use in the Times, "cellphone walkers are less likely to help a stranger in need, for instance, or to exchange pleasantries with passers-by. They are effectively cutting themselves off from the random encounters in public spaces that used to invigorate city living."

In Sherry Turkle's new book Alone Together, she complains "that the sight at a local cafe of people focused on their computers and smartphones as they drink their coffee bothers her: 'These people are not my friends,' she writes, 'yet somehow I miss their presence.'" In the Times review, Kakutani called this "primly sanctimonious...sentimental whining," but it's a profound statement. I know how Turkle feels. We have lost people to these devices.

As we lose humans to technology, we also lose a piece of our humanity.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santacon Past

Santacon is known today as a day of drunken revelry. It is, essentially, a massive pub crawl. But when it began, back in 1994, it was Santarchy: "The Founder and Avatar of The Suicide Club, Gary Warne decided to organize a non-political, purely surreal Santa prank event after reading a Mother Jones article about a Danish political group dressing as Santas and mobbing a Copenhagen Dept. store just before Christmas."

The Danish group was known as Solvognen and they mobbed Copenhagen in 1974--Mother Jones wrote about them in 1977 (click for article). Their actions were a response to "greed and capitalism."

Santarchy Logo

The U.S. event was originally, says Wikipedia, "Influenced by the surrealist movement, Discordianism, and other subversive art currents, the Cacophonists celebrated the Yule season in a distinctly anti-commercial manner, by mixing guerrilla street theatre and pranksterism."

So, basically, Santacon used to be kind of punk. It sounds a lot like Reverend Billy's actions in the city's Starbucks. How then did it become the pub crawl it is today?

Santacon NYC Logo

While the Santacon NYC site says "It's not a bar crawl," they nevertheless give tips on how to survive the day that are almost all alcohol-related: "Pace yourself. Your friends don’t want to spend their Santacon cleaning the puke outta your beard." "Tip your bartenders well." "Don’t get arrested. Dressing like Santa does not exempt you from city, state and federal laws. This includes open container violations!" "Check in on your friends... Don’t send your wasted 22-year-old cousin on the train back to Ronkonkoma by herself!"

Maybe that's just the difference between 1974, 1994, and today, when "hordes of drunk Santas take over New York." Just as Christmas has been removed from its original meaning, so has Santacon. Of course, it took a couple thousand years for Christmas to lose its significance--and only a decade or so for Santacon. But things move so quickly nowadays from meaningful to meaningless, it's hard to keep up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sidewalk Sitters

Something I've noticed over the past 5-7 years, or thereabouts, since the hyper-gentrification of everything went into full swing, is the increasing habit of non-homeless people to park their backsides on the sidewalks and curbs of the city.

At first, it would startle me. I'd see them at a glance, assume "homeless," and then get up closer and have to do a double-take. She's not asking for change with that Starbucks cup.

And it's not just that these sidewalk sitters are non-homeless people. I'm not talking about a bunch of skateboard kids or punks "chillin'" on the dirty curb. The people I'm talking about are largely middle and upper-middle class "regular" folks. It's the tourists and Juicy Couture shoppers. It's moms from Ohio.

They sit to make phone calls and write text messages.

They relax on the curb to have deep, intimate talks.

They plop down with their soy mocha lattes.

They sprawl out with their shopping bags.

They read maps and drink Snapple.

They place plastic containers of snacks on the curb next to them and indulge in a little street munching.

They spread their legs, enjoy their iced coffee, and send their digital missives.

They collapse en masse, with a group of pals, and shoot the breeze while leaning against a lamp post or a mailbox, or with their sandaled feet in the gutter. As if nobody ever pisses or pukes there. As if nobody's dog ever took a shit in that exact spot, and no toxic liquids flow through that green stream.

And you know what it is. It's the assumption of sterility. All those shiny boxes, those condos and newsstands made of glass, all that Bloombergian glitter makes people think everything in New York is clean, so the sidewalks must be too. Clean enough to eat off?

It's a minor complaint, perhaps a petty one, but something about it just bugs me.