Sometimes I feel as if the city of Boston is like a crotchety relative who brings out the worst in me. I go into my favorite coffee shop, buy a newspaper, look for a table, bump shoulders with a pretty college girl, and the whole time my eyes are trained on the grimy, stained linoleum floor. At some point along the way, probably not long after I moved here about a decade ago, I gave up on the notion of civility. The funny thing is, when I visit Los Angeles, I often find myself chatting up the woman behind the counter at a local coffee shop and swapping stories with a scruffy housepainter-actor who is “temporarily” out of work.
“Dude, can you loan me a buck for my cappuccino?” my scruffy friend asks.
“Sure,” I tell him. And for a moment I feel a rush of sentimental goodness–that quintessentially American optimism fueled by irresponsible tax cuts and caffeinated drinks that encourages two strangers to acknowledge each other and show just a bit of goodwill.
I love Boston, but something about it is perversely asocial. A poll conducted by the online dating service Match.com compared “opportunities for romance” in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. When Bostonians were asked how flirtatious they found one another, only 6 percent answered “very flirtatious.” In Los Angeles that number was 27 percent, and in New York it was 31 percent. I think the problem is this: To flirt, you have to make eye contact and exchange playful banter. Flirting doesn't happen here because most people never look up. We have a culture of tunnel vision in which people avoid interaction. I don't believe this can be blamed on cold winters because this mindset has never struck me as seasonal. Tourist season is under way now, with delegates for the Democratic National Convention soon arriving, and I don't see anyone acting any more friendly.
Ultimately, I think we suffer from low expectations. We don't smile at strangers or say hello to joggers along the Charles because we don't expect our fellow Bostonians to reciprocate. We have come to accept that this is a city where you go to your office or your pub and start acting like yourself only once you are surrounded by people you know.
Some would argue that this attitude exists in other cities, and perhaps it does, but not to the extent that it does in Boston. We are cursed by our Puritan roots. The Puritans believed that humankind was sinful at heart–and that given the chance to talk in the streets, or share a glass of wine, men and women would soon be consumed with depravity. Perhaps it was H. L. Mencken who best described Puritanism, as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In any case, this chapter of our past has left us with a frigid social legacy, one I think needs to be resisted. Because I have no intention of moving to Los Angeles, and I'm tired of looking at the floor.