It was in high school when I first heard the pejorative great unwashed masses. I didn’t know then that one of the principal points of reference is an 1868 book by Thomas Wright about the working class in Victorian England. The longer phrase great unwashed masses of humanity was apparently first used by Edmund Burke but often appears in the short form great unwashed. Even to my uninitiated ear, it immediately conjured up the ignorati, know nothings, or more specific to a bygone era, the laboring class whose hygiene and uncultured tastes were clear class separators. Some decades later now, I understand the term more generally as referring to the public, Ortega y Gasset’s mass man, an undifferentiated mob encountered anonymously on the street. These days, outside of a few construction workers or day laborers, I don’t find anyone’s hygiene to be at issue, nor do most encounters offer the possibility of determining what anyone may know (though I suspect most know nothing worth knowing), but one starkly irritating impression is that people lack a proper sense of personal space. This is reinforced daily and with alarming intensity.
My daily commute includes legs on sidewalks, buses, trains, plazas, hallways, corridors, aisles, atria, escalators, and elevators. Each surround and its choke points and bottlenecks implies its own unique traffic flows, and I find myself jostling in close proximity to others especially in the confined spaces of buses and trains. Some indignities are to be expected, though nothing perhaps like those inflicted by packers on Japanese subways who shove people into trains like sardines. (In Chicago, we either pack ourselves in or step back and wait for a less crowded train.) I try to be patient and forgiving, since the alternative is to get stressed about it, but emotion sometimes overwhelms me and I shoot a nasty look.
Listen, idiot: I know you’re from outta town (Blue Line from O’Hare to the Loop) and don’t know the etiquette, but do I really have to ask (?!) you to move your purse/briefcase/bags off the seat so I or someone else can sit? And you with the smartphone stuck to your nose: open your bloody eyes and watch where you’re going. Whatever information is displayed on that tiny screen for your tiny brain can surely wait. And WTF is up with dingleheads who step into obvious traffic flow only to stop to get bearings? (Try that on the roadway, frogger, and see what it gets you!) Does your entitlement extend to the entire sidewalk or corridor like no one else is traversing that space? Has becoming a screenhead narrowed your peripheral vision so you can only see directly ahead? And if you’re on an escalator and have gorged on too many Big Gulps to suffer climbing stairs anymore, maybe you could at least move your fat ass (and the wheelie bag you can’t carry anymore, either) to one side so a few of the rest of us can squeeze by your bulk! I know this is a lot to ask, but if you’re in a tight space on the bus or train, maybe you can unshoulder your purse or backpack and stop poking me in the back or butt with it. Much appreciated.
And while I’ve got my dander up, the exoskeleton of an automobile surrounding your body is not actually an extension of personal space. Nor is it okay to line-jump or cut others off at the ramp or any of a variety of other behaviors you jokers indulge in from the illusion of comfort and safety in the driver’s seat of your behemoth SUV. That shit actually causes accidents where people are injured — and all so that you can wait in line a couple car lengths further in front?
Asshole … scratch that. Idiot asshat!
What really amazes me, however, is the number of people I see waddling around with compromised locomotion — almost always someone in middle age who has blimped up to the size of a small planet and wears a circus tent like it’s spandex. Nearly everyone gains some weight after the metabolism of youth slows, but really! Isn’t the discomfort of no longer being able to lift your leg — having to swing it around the side to move — isn’t that enough motivation to, um, stop supersizing your meals or maybe just forgo the pop for water?