January 26, 2011
I demand a recount! Or a re-survey! Or some form of redress for the aspersions Travel + Leisure magazine has cast not only on the City of Angels but on all of us Angelenos.
The magazine released a survey last week of travelers who, in all their wisdom, concluded that Los Angeles surpasses New York as the rudest city in America.
My first reaction was fear that I would never again be able to use the rude New Yorker jokes in my already limited humor repertoire — classics like “Excuse me, sir, is the Museum of Modern Art that way, or should I just go bleep myself?”
My second reaction was plain old defensiveness. I convinced myself that the respondents to the T+L survey were snooty high-end travelers who were out-snootied by bellhops and valets — bellhops! valets! — at hipster hotels like the Mondrian or Chateau Marmont.
But after I cooled down, I started to wonder what exactly the survey was getting at.
With some exceptions, I consider Angelenos to be moderately courteous, although a tad insincere. In New York, you get honesty. If New Yorkers can’t be bothered, they’ll let you know. If they can, they’re downright helpful.
I got a powerful hit of this bluntness one day years ago when I worked in New York right out of college. I was walking near the corner of 7th Street and Avenue A when I slipped and fell. If the embarrassment wasn’t bad enough, I was shocked by the reaction of passers-by. One guy chose to enjoy my misfortune and started applauding. Another fellow, his life evidently directed by the better angels of our nature, offered me his hand.
I’ve never taken such a public fall in L.A. — at least not physically — but if I trip tomorrow on, say, a sidewalk crack on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown, I don’t think I’d receive a hand of applause or help. But a few people might, in passing, ask if I was OK, more for the sake of form than real concern.
That’s not exactly rude, but it’s not exactly not, either. I think it points to a fundamental lack of a shared civic culture in Los Angeles.
Like New Yorkers we are mostly transplants, but there’s a difference. People tend to move to the Big Apple expressly to make themselves part of a famous, ongoing civic enterprise. By contrast, I think what our late Mayor Tom Bradley once said is still true: People who come to L.A. “are looking for a place where they can be free” — from tradition, the past, even from community. More than NYC, L.A. is a city of disconnected exiles.
But it doesn’t make us rude. I think we strive for just enough everyday courtesy to keep strangers and the unfamiliar at bay without getting ourselves into too much conflict.
A few decades ago, essayist Edmund White found this act of keeping the world at arms’ length almost the opposite of rudeness. “The almost Oriental politeness of the West Coast,” he wrote, “is one of its distinctive regional features, in marked contrast to the contentiousness of the East Coast. ... So few human contacts in Los Angeles go unmediated by glass (either a TV screen or an automobile windshield) that the direct confrontation renders the participants docile, stunned, sweet.”
What he missed is the way we also separate ourselves by geography, class and culture. Humans everywhere “flock together,” but in L.A. it’s easier to stay locked in those bubbles than in the smaller, more concentrated area of NYC. And L.A.’s bubbles reinforce the fact that one group’s code of conduct may not translate across the barrier.
A few years back, I spent some time in a neighborhood in south Glendale populated mostly with new Armenian and Latino immigrants, asking people how they got along together. With few exceptions, the Latinos said they didn’t get along with Armenians. The Armenians, on the other hand, were as a group certain everything was hunky dory. Rudeness is in the eye of the beholder.
Travel + Leisure isn’t saying exactly how Angelenos pushed the buttons of its readers to earn the title of rudest city. But if I ever go for a drink at Bar Marmont, I’m pretty sure I’m not tipping the valet.
Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.