My somewhat-arthritic gait enabled them to reach the elevator long before me, but the young man insisted on holding the doors open until I got there.
From his dress, especially his well-scuffed work shoes, I would guess the young man was an hourly worker. It is highly unlikely he would have read the story on page A16 of The New York Times on Nov. 2:
“Seeing Social Graces as Waning in the South”
The young man who held the door for me was not descended from any perfumed and powdered, largely imaginary plantation etiquette. He was simply obeying a cultural code bred into him like an instinct.
Put “Decline of Southern Courtesy” in your search engine and one of the first items to appear is a column by my friend and colleague Lisa Davis, features editor of The Star, entitled, “Mind your manners … please.”
In the column, among other reports of the vitality of Southern courtesy, she was instructing her son on the etiquette and mechanics of … holding the door for those behind him.
Lisa also noted our habit of “yes sirring” and “yes m’aming” everybody at either end of the social scale from garbage man to bank president. As I recall, I addressed the young man holding the door for me as “sir.”
That particular way of indicating respect is not so prevalent in Texas, according to Lisa, a Texan herself, but her state in my mind is forever linked with another means of lubricating contact among people, even in a large city.
In the late ’70s, with memories of JFK’s assassination still fresh, I cringed at the thought of a business trip to Dallas. I left with a favorable impression of the city. It was the first place in my experience where everyone’s parting words were, “Have a nice day.”
The Times’ article made sneering reference to our bless-your-heart culture as false courtesy. The phrase is not so much false as it is a way of putting a poultice on the truth, as in: “That sure is an ugly baby, bless his heart.”
An ugly incident at a high-end bar in Atlanta inspired the story. A black professional basketball player and his lawyer angrily refused the bartender’s request to surrender their seats to two white ladies standing behind them. The argument wound up in court.
The court did not buy the argument that the bar used chivalry to mask racism. The bar won; civility was wounded but alive and, happily, the arrogance of some millionaire athletes, self-crowned royalty, got its comeuppance, too.
That incident seems a fragile platform from which to proclaim a general decline of civility. The pace of urban life and the in-migration from other regions may create incidents of incivility but not its demise.
Desirable cultural habits resist even the urgency of city life. Courtesy still lives, but what I have observed over the past three or four decades is that decorum — standards of dress and behavior — is in full retreat.
One of the places where Josephine and I used to believe that any breach of decorum was unthinkable is the grand old London hotel, Claridge’s, favored by her parents and mine.
There we have observed, close enough to touch, the Queen Mother making her amiably dignified way to the ballroom. In the Salon where they used to wear 18th-century satin breeches, the headwaiter told us of the saga required to convince upper management to allow the service of a plebian drink … beer.
This scene will give you an idea of former Claridge’s standards:
We were to have drinks there with a brilliant author and journalist whose favored uniform was a black turtleneck sweater — certain to clash with the antique dress code in the Salon. When we entered, you could hear the whisper of satin knee breeches from every corner of the room as waiters descended to politely remove the offense against propriety.
We were banished to the foyer, a minor inconvenience, but the point had been made: In the contest of eccentric brilliance vs. decorum, decorum would win. Slightly miffed at the time, I now find that an edifying story.
Then came the day when Josephine spied from her hotel window a stir of staff and curious onlookers. She reported with an air of there-goes-the-neighborhood the arrival of … Madonna.
Sure enough, after a lengthy absence, we returned to our favorite hotel to find the 18th-century costumes gone from the Salon and guests in T-shirts and jeans. A bastion of decorum had suddenly become Hollywood cheap.
We Southerners no longer wear coat and tie to football games or church. If we believe that there is nothing special about the places where we worship either God or football, the culture certainly has lost something of value.
Regardless, I for one will hold the door open in hopes for a renewed sense of ceremony, the conviction that certain events and places be accorded a significance that requires from us special dress and manners.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.