Questions of Chivalry

February 15, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was coming back from work through Bay Ridge, my new neighborhood, when I came to an intersection and ahead of me I saw an older woman pushing a grocery cart, coming in my direction. She stopped for a moment to try and navigate the cart over a patch of snow leftover from a recent storm. I stepped out of the way to allow her to free the cart and continue by me. Coming up behind the older woman now appeared a young girl, probably in her late teens, and what looked like her mother or a relative. The teenager volunteered to help the woman with the cart, who thanked her. The teenager helped free the cart and moved it past me; I had stepped well to the side to let them by. As I now had the walk light I went to bypass the three of them and continue on my way. Before I could, the woman who I assume was the mother of the teenager said to me, voice dripping sarcasm, “Some gentleman.” It actually took me a moment to realize that she was talking about me. She thought that I should have been the one to help the older woman with the cart. I was taken aback. I said “Well, she was already doing it,” indicating the daughter. “You still should have asked if you could help,” the mother said. I really didn’t want to continue the conversation. I was a bit embarrassed, but more annoyed. I started walking in the direction I’d been going again, throwing one hand up as I did so and saying “Aaahhh,” a noise that here in New York means derision and washing one’s hands of the entire situation.

But the circumstance seems to have stuck with me. Was I actually in the wrong by not helping the older woman? I like to think that my parents raised me to be polite, and for the most part, I am. But it’s true that I don’t go out of my way to help strangers on the street. I don’t open car doors for women, and I don’t stand when they enter or leave a room. That seems like a hopelessly outdated notion to me. The fact is, here in New York, and elsewhere, there are some women, or men, for that matter, who are resentful if you try to help them. They would prefer that you just leave them alone. In New York I find that it’s usually the best policy not to interfere with people, unless it’s obvious that they’re in serious need of help. You’ve heard that no good deed goes unpunished? Well, this city epitomizes that. You never know who’s crazy; you could offer a sweet looking old lady a hand getting over a puddle, and she could pull a knife on you. There are just so many dissident personalities out there that it’s best to leave well enough alone, just for your personal safety.

Then the other aspect of all this that I can’t help but consider is that “chivalry,” in its glory days, wasn’t anywhere near what it was cracked up to be. Yeah, men doffed their caps and stood when women entered and left the room. It was also perfectly permissible to smack your wife around if she burned the roast. Until woman’s suffrage, they couldn’t vote. There were restrictions on their owning land and other property. They were left out of all discussions of politics or other manly pursuits, and they couldn’t run for public office. The gallant men that wouldn’t curse in their presence were still treating them like second class citizens. So even though the peculiar nature of my little run-in on the street has left a lasting impression on me, after careful consideration, I just can’t conclude that I was in the wrong. I wanted to have the thing to go through one more time, so that this time I would have a comeback prepared. This go-round I would say to the impudent passerby, “Chivalry is dead, lady. Get over it.” But all things considered, I think I’m just as happy with my first response, “Aaahhh.” This is New York, and what we don’t agree with, we brush off. It might not be polite, but it sure as hell works for us.

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