Three times on one block of Park Avenue a different follower of the spiritual group Falun Gong tries to hand Peggy Post an information leaflet. Each time Post, politely, declines. “I’ve learned to say, ‘No, thank you,’ and keep moving,” she confides.
This woman is definitely not a New Yorker. A New Yorker would say nothing. A New Yorker on the way to work doesn’t care zip about these ubiquitous protesters who are all over the sidewalks these days either meditating or reenacting with fake blood and painted-on bruises the atrocities imposed on them by the Chinese government.
A real New Yorker doesn’t make eye contact. She just keeps walking.
“Well,” says Post, “when people are stressed and they encounter strangers, it doesn’t bring out the best in people.”
But what about real New Yorkers? Are we people too?
She pauses for a passing fire truck siren before answering. (A real New Yorker, by the way, wouldn’t pause; she’d shout right over it.)
“Of course New Yorkers are people too,” Post says, merrily. “They’re just in more of a hurry than other people.”
Post is the inheritor of an elite New York family that for three generations has been the steward of America’s etiquette. Her great-grandmother-in-law was the late Emily Post, who wrote the book in 1922. Understandably, as they fought the good fight against bad manners, the Posts left New York. But last week Peggy Post was back, appraising the streets, the subways and the first floor of Bloomingdale’s, and answering the perennial question: Is New York the rudest city in America?
“It’s really not,” says Post, who lived here in the 1970s before moving to the suburbs and then to Florida with her husband, Allen, a businessman. “It’s just that there is so much excitement here, so much going on.”
Perhaps, but it seems like a worthy exercise to see what happens when the relentlessly gracious Post has to confront the infamously discourteous New York.
Over the last month she has visited 11 American cities promoting the latest version -- the 17th edition -- of “Emily Post’s Etiquette.” She stopped in New York last week and for a couple of hours cruised the very city where Emily lived and apparently glided through high society.
The rush-hour test
Immediately after she gets past the phalanx of Falun Gong-ers, a bicycle messenger addresses Post, who is 59 and looking trim in black slacks and a lavender sweater.
“I love you, lady; you’re beautiful.”
A little flummoxed, she insists: “He’s talking to you, not me.”
No, he’s definitely talking to her.
“Well, there are kooks in every city,” she says, using the harshest words she will utter this afternoon.
In a little while, she is gliding (it’s a family thing) across the black-and-white checkerboard first floor of Bloomingdale’s, where an army of perfume-spritzing sales clerks, one after another, approaches her.
“Would you like to try Marc Jacobs?”
“Could I do your makeup for you today?”
Instead of being offended or concluding that she looks like a candidate for a makeover, Post laughs at the intrusions and says, “Oh, no thanks” each time. She seems to relish the stimulation. Although she travels widely promoting the Post “brand” -- there are several related books and an institute -- she rarely finds herself amid such lively chaos. (Unless you count airports, which she is not inhibited about declaring the rudest places in America.)
“This is so much fun,” she says, as she holds the doors for two people leaving Bloomingdale’s. “See, each person said ‘thank you’ to me.” As she writes in a “note to the readers” at the start of her book: “A little kindness goes a long way.”
It is rush hour and Post carefully descends the steps into one of the busiest subway stations in the city, under Bloomingdale’s. Immediately she points out a list of 13 rules on subways, including “No spitting” and “No lying down.”
“An important part of etiquette,” she explains, as we wait in a crush of people for the No. 6 train, “is adapting to where you are and what is going on around you.... Of course, every generation thinks it’s ruder than the last. But we’re no ruder than they were in 1921.”
That’s when Emily Post was first asked to write an etiquette book. A daughter of architect Bruce Price, who designed the Flatiron building and the posh Tuxedo Park, N.Y., community, Post was at the time writing novels, many of which showed how character was revealed through manners. But while she moved among the swells of New York, she was also aware of how the city -- poised between the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age, between ladies who left their calling cards on silver trays and women who wore short flapper dresses -- was changing.
In fact, to understand America, Post had to leave New York. She and a cousin took a road trip with her son behind the wheel. By the time they reached Chicago, Post decided to ship back her tea set. “There’s no time for tea on the road,” she wrote home.
Honey versus spice
As the subway car pulls into our destination, Union Station, a woman fairly shouts, “Excuse me” as she edges her way out. Her tone is hostile, but Post points out, “You still get more with honey than you do with spice.”
Post is more interested in a young man, wearing earphones, who holds the subway door open to give a woman, wearing a Muslim head scarf, a chance to maneuver her baby carriage off the car. “People in New York are used to the mix and living close,” she says, “so they tend to look at each other on more human terms.” That’s good etiquette.
No one understood better than Emily Post that civil behavior was more than knowing which fork to use. “Emily would say it doesn’t matter what fork you use as much as it does being interested in the person you’re having dinner with,” says Post, who, although she never met her husband’s great-grandmother, seems to channel her every day.
Speaking of eating, New Yorkers are known experts in walking and chewing -- a real no-no in previous generations but commonplace today. Although Post accepts this as one of those modern-day concerns, like cellphone use, she declines when offered a steaming cup of hot cider tempting commuters in the Union Square market.
“Oh, go ahead without me,” she says, forgiving me for taking a big gulp.
At the end of two hours, she has watched somebody get arrested right in front of her, she’s been led onto the wrong subway (by me) and has been made to pose for half an hour in the rain to have her picture taken. But none of it gets under her skin. She remains ever at the ready with a jolly bromide.
It’s hard not to like this woman, but her refusal to find fault with my boorish city is really starting to bug me. I wonder why. Is it because I can’t be like her? I find myself wishing she had time to stick around and see what it feels like to have hot cocoa spilled on you at the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Instead, we say goodbye and I immediately feel the need to shake off the residue of an all too cheery afternoon. I buy a hot dog. And eat it walking.