Voice of Bruck News Service

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

Courtesy

The largest leg of Bruck’s commute between Manassas, VA and Washington DC consists of a 50-minute ride on the “VRE” (Virginia Railway Express), which is a commuter train system that connects the far-flung northern VA suburbs to the city. I rather enjoy the VRE most days – I can read, do crosswords, nap, etc. Pretty much anything you want to do, within reason, you can do on the train, except maybe sing or break wind. However, one person’s definition of reasonable may differ from another’s, so there are guidelines published by the VRE in a pamphlet entitled, “Courtesy.”

No smoking. Keep your feet off the seats. Okay so far. Keep cell phone conversations quiet and to a minimum. Quiet is generally understood, but “minimum” is subject to a wide range of interpretation. Pick up your trash. No problem. Keep the vacant seats clear of your personal belongings. Okay, Bruck is a little guilty here of violating this one, trying to discourage potential seat partners. I could add a few items such as eating loudly or really whooping it up, but I’m happy to leave “Courtesy” intact.

Here’s Bruck’s favorite section: “Personal Grooming.” It is excerpted here for your reading pleasure (sentence numbers added by yours truly):

[1] Many of us are often in a hurry in the morning, and everyone wants to save a few minutes whenever they can. [2] You can accomplish a lot of things as you commute to work on the VRE, but please don’t make personal grooming one of them. [3] Styling your hair, clipping your nails, applying makeup and fingernail polish or brushing your teeth annoys other passengers and should be done at home. [4] Do everyone a favor and groom yourself before you board the train or after you detrain.

Pretty concise and to-the-point, but just for fun, let’s indulge in a little deconstruction.

[1] The first sentence is blithely trying to impute the best of all possible intentions to the violators, and further justify them by indicating that these are shared by a presumed multitude of others. That is, even though you’re a total jerk, we’re going to expressly assume that you’re the minimum jerk, and although you’re one of the few who acts on them, your jerk impulses are shared by many of those around you.

[2] The first part of the sentence is further justification, implying that the act of publicly tweezing your unibrow is an “accomplishment.” But the second part does politely come right out and say don’t do it.

[3] Just in case the hapless reader is unaware of what constitutes grooming, here is a list of activities that fall into that category. But the law of unintended consequences is a cruel taskmaster and a mendacious handmaiden. The problem is that it is a partial list, and those whose lack of basic social skills render them disposed to conduct personal hygiene on the train, might also be inclined to read the list as exhaustive, thereby strengthening their mandate for engaging in any activity not listed, such as shaving, nasal trimming, applying antifungal cream, etc. The indication that the activities should be done at home is also a bit presumptuous. I can think of several people who never apply makeup or nail polish, and therefore the proscription to do these activities at home is misleading at best.

[4] A little snarky, wouldn’t you say? And look at the last clause, “…after you detrain.” Every story tells a picture. Mine is of a guy who once again wakes up on the train tracks, not remembering the last four hours of the previous evening’s bender, much less knowing where he is now or how he got there. But he does see a train coming, and, … it’s a VRE! And it’s coming to a stop! He must be somewhere near a station. If he can just get up off the cinders and on the train, he can figure out where he is, and maybe start to pull himself together enough to make it into work and hopefully avoid getting written up one more time… He struggles to his feet, reels up onto the platform, and just barely careens onto the train as the doors are closing. He finds a seat, and starts to comb insects and gravel out of his hair and brush flecks of dried blood and vomit from his sleeves, when the conductor walks up, slowly shaking his head, and hands him a copy of “Courtesy,” saying, “No grooming, sir, please wait till you detrain.”

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