A Misstep Gets You the (Wagging) Finger


Poor America, goes the supposed California viewpoint. So unenlightened. So full of fat people and smokers and energy hogs. So much bad feng shui . So little good Pinot. Surely it's no wonder that the other 49 states can't even say the word "California" without feeling vaguely put down.

They don't realize, though, that Californians also suffer--at the hands of other Californians, in a manner that has been refined to an art in key areas of the Golden State.

Actually, one key area.

This one.

"Hey! Hey! Hey !" A woman is screaming at the proprietor of a station wagon that has momentarily blocked her Pacific Heights driveway. "I'm very disappointed in you. Very, very disappointed in you! Tell me your name!"

"Excuse me? But if you're going to drive? You need to drive slowly."

A goateed Gen-X-er has halted, halfway through a crosswalk, to tap on a stranger's car window in the Outer Sunset. He speaks in that syrupy voice people use to talk down to children. "People could get hurt!" he admonishes, triumphantly gliding off.

"Don't be an a--hole." This handy, all-purpose advice appears, festively, on Bastille Day, spray-painted in black on a bus stop on Russian Hill.

In other words, America doesn't know the half of California-style Public Shame. What Paris is to public kissing and New York is to prerecorded buckle-up ads in taxis, the Bay Area is to the art of the moral reprimand. "Finger-wagging," it has been called, but that fails to convey the endlessly rich panorama of outraged civic interaction--the honking, the nagging, the note leaving, the digit flipping, the Internet flaming, the free advice offering, the passive-aggressive panhandling, the bumper stickering, the pointing of fingers, the giving of what-for, the accusing of being in bed with crass corporate interests, the politically motivated throwing of pies.

"Hey! Ever hear of a crosswalk?" a fat man in a dented Nissan shouted at me and my children as we dashed across the street one day in our neighborhood shopping district.

"Hey! Pedestrians have the right of way!" two women in combat boots shrieked from a Haight-Ashbury intersection that they were crossing--against the light.

"Twenty-minute showers?" gasped an appalled letter-writer to the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to a story about a woman in Concord who confessed that she missed them, now that she was living entirely without gas and electricity as a form of protest against her high utility bills. "Has anyone calculated how much water was wasted for such an unnecessary self-indulgence?"

Need we ask?

"Why does the average American know who Kitty Kelly is, and not Pol Pot?" a member of the audience demanded during a recent appearance of National Public Radio's Terry Gross in Berkeley.

"Uh, is that true?" was all the flummoxed host of the "Fresh Air" talk show could say.

At a different point in the conversation, the Philadelphia-based radio personality laughingly related her experiences in trying to find a local hotel with in-room televisions.

"Why don't you try conversation?" a reservations clerk tartly advised.

The Note of Public Shame is, of course, a staple in San Francisco, where little handwritten upbraidings flutter huffily all over town.

"Dear Neighbor, we would appreciate it if you would do more to prevent your dogs from barking," said the one in our mailbox at the first yip out of the kids' new puppy.

"Please stop stealing the aluminum cans from our recycling bins--we know who you are!" said the note thrust during Christmas week under every door of the babysitter's apartment complex.

"How inconsiderate!" a guest columnist in the Chronicle confessed to scribbling in eyeliner on the back of a PG&E; bill that she then thrust under the windshield wiper of a Scirocco that had used two parking spaces. "A Muni bus could fit in the space you've hogged."

A variation is the preemptive, handwritten, morally superior I'm-sorry:

"Dear Sir or Ma'am, I accidentally bumped against your car on the rear passenger side bumper, but no one knew whose car this was." That one--signed, incredibly, by a guy whose name was not Eddie Haskell--showed up on our unscathed parked car.

At a showing here last week of "Legally Blonde," there was a Mass Public Shaming, as the audience booed uncontrollably at a trailer whose shots of natural beauty turned out to be an ad for an SUV. Mayor Willie Brown got a Culinary Public Shaming a few years ago, when people who felt the liberal Democrat was actually a right-winger threw cream pies at him. Brown shamed them back by charging assault and battery.

San Francisco, meanwhile, is being publicly shamed by the city of Oakland, which has launched an ad campaign with such slogans as, "San Francisco is the place to be ... overcharged for rent."

And Berkeley was recently publicly shamed by a transplanted English professor. "City of Scolds" is what Rosemary Graham, who moved there nine years ago from Washington, D.C., called her current hometown this month in a local op-ed piece. In an interview, Graham dated her first Bay Area-style shaming to an encounter one day near Chez Panisse in North Berkeley. A car was pulling very slowly out of a parking spot she wanted, and her patience had caused other motorists to start honking in outrage. As she finally pulled into the space, a guy on the sidewalk launched into full shame mode.

"He said something like, 'You waited much too long for that parking spot,"' she recalled, "and it was a rainy day, and I just snapped. I tracked him into Black Oak Books [a nearby bookstore], and walked up to him in the mystery section, and said, 'How about if I just follow you around and pass judgment on your behavior? What makes you the moral authority?"'

Since then, she said, she has been shamed in restaurants by strangers who felt her toddler was eating too quickly, in locker rooms by naked women who disapproved of her scented deodorant and in coffee shops by strangers who felt she should have chosen a local joint over a corporate chain. A friend, she said, was berated for bottle-feeding instead of breastfeeding her baby, who had been born prematurely. She added that she, too, has partaken of Public Shaming, suggesting a smaller car to the driver of an SUV.

For shame, some might say. The Bay Area, after all, is supposed to be the bastion of California-style tolerance. But someone needs to set standards for the state that sets the standards. If not this place, which? If not incessantly, when?

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