Years ago, while I was sipping a vodka tonic at The Works, a gay bar on New York City's Upper West Side, a well-dressed guy who appeared to be in his mid 40s sidled up to me and launched his pick-up routine. It consisted of the usual litany of U.S. icebreakers -- What's your name? What do you do? Why'd you come in here looking like that? -- and one astute observation: "You scowl a lot." Then one final question: Why are you in such a bad mood?
"It's not me, it's them," I wanted to say. "Why do people have to be so annoying, brushing up against me when they pass by and always insisting on choosing the small space between the next person over and me to place their order?" I probably said something defensive like "I'm not in a bad mood" before plastering on the fakest smile that I could muster. I should have asked why he was hitting on a scowler. It couldn't have been a particularly attractive look.
He stuck around, so my phony turnaround must have been convincing. He was attractive in that bespectacled handsome-professor/Clark Kent kind of way, and I didn't want to scare him off. It's not like The Works was offering a lot of options on a Thursday night, and my friend Jason had disappeared to a corner in the back with a new friend, leaving me all alone to fend off the poking and prodding of passersby. I was happy for such an attractive distraction. I'd have to roll my eyes on the inside.
I was relieved when he wrote down his phone number and announced he had to leave, though. Forcing myself to appear cheerful in such an etiquette-challenged crowd was hard work. After his departure, I'd be free to step back out of the closet and be openly annoyed again via my body language because, well, that's what I do.
Did. Recently, my inner crank has taken over my personality completely, turning me into a more vocal grouch than ever. Yes, I'm now that guy. I've traded the not-so-subtle innuendo -- a weary sigh, an exasperated expression -- for the more direct approach. If you're bugging me, expect to hear about it.
First target: People who pollute the air that I breathe with their foul cigarette smoke. Is there a more disgusting habit on the planet? The person who inspired my newly antagonistic attitude was a man at Cafe Mojito on Long Street who had the nerve to puff on a cigar at a table on the sidewalk on the other side of an open window, allowing the smoke to waft over to my inside table by the open window where I was writing -- or rather, trying to.
"Um, sir. Would you mind pointing your cigar in another direction?" I asked, attempting to make my voice sound as low and authoritative as possible, but somehow sending it in the opposite direction so that it actually rose an octave or two.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," the man said, looking at his cancer stick before throwing it on the floor and stomping on it with his foot. "I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."
I returned to my work, feeling vindicated, triumphant and free to breathe easily.
"Do you know that's the owner of the place?" The guy at the table beside me was looking at me with what appeared to be a mix of incredulity and admiration. He'd overheard everything.
"Oh, really?" I wanted to crawl under my table and hide. "Seriously?" I couldn't believe I had been so bold with the owner. While I was thinking of possible explanations for his overly obsequious response -- maybe he recognized me as a regular customer and wanted to retain my business, maybe he knew it was a filthy habit that he had to quit, maybe he was just a sweet, considerate guy -- he showed up at my table.
"Is everything okay? I just wanted to apologize again for the cigar smoke. It's pretty strong, isn't it?" He smiled broadly and extended his hand. I'd made a new friend. Now every time I go to Cafe Mojito, he comes over to where I'm sitting and greets me like a returning hero.
He may have helped to create Cape Town's guy most likely to complain to your face because now no smoker blowing contaminated air in my direction is safe from my wicked glare and firm admonishment. I haven't made any other new friends yet, but I still usually get what I want, even before I arrive at the admonishment part. One woman at Fatcactus actually changed seats when she caught me giving her cigarette a dirty look. I didn't have to say a thing.
Just one look was all it took for the woman at the deli counter of the Pick and Pay at Gardens Centre to know she was up to no good. As I stood there waiting for my order, she stuck her head into the small space between me and the woman in front of me in order to get a closer look at what was behind the glass. I bent my upper torso back to a 115-degree angle to stop her head from making contact with my chest and gave her one of my "What the hell is she doing?" stares.
She looked like a kid who had just been caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Channeling my mom (a normally mild-mannered woman who probably taught me everything I know about putting strangers in their place), I opened my mouth and let her have it.
"What you are doing is very rude. If you want to get a closer look, the polite thing to do is to say, 'Excuse me,' and acknowledge that you are not the only person here and that you are invading someone else's personal space. You don't just stick your head in front of me like I'm not even there. That's so rude."
She stared at me in shock, as if she was having a grand epiphany, thanks to me, as if I'd just revealed the answer to something that had been puzzling her for years. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You're right. I'm sorry."
I couldn't tell if she was mocking me or being sincere, but I settled on the latter. Then I felt guilty for making such a fuss. It was a feeling that would return about a week later when I opened the front door to my new apartment and scolded the two workers in the hallway who were interrupting my solitary reverie by talking too loudly. Their hammering was bad enough, but please, no voices!
"Do you mind keeping it down?" I asked, speaking in the low tone that I expected them to emulate.
"Oh, yes, we're so sorry." I never heard another word from them.
I never heard a peep from the woman the other day at Truth, a coffee house on Buitenkant Street that looks like a cross between a brewery and a 19th-century saloon. I was sitting at a table for four, enjoying my croque monsieur ham and melted cheese sandwich and working on my previous blog post about lies, when this stranger plopped her butt down at my table, directly across from me.
I had no idea who she was, or why she would sit at a complete stranger's table without even acknowledging him, or at the very least, asking, "Is it okay if I sit here?" That's what a polite person would have done? Was she raised in a barn?
I gave her one of my now-time-tested annoyed looks, and she looked back at me, defiance in her eyes. "What's your problem?" they seemed to be saying. "You are," mine responded. Then she refocused on her phone. She wasn't going anywhere, and she damn sure wasn't going to ask my permission to sit in a public space.
I'd encountered her type before, most memorably on a shuttle bus from Dubai to the Abu Dhabi airport, where a woman talking loudly on her cell phone in the seat next to me rifled through her bags, left elbow invading my air space, and kept swinging her braid extensions in my face, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was a person in the window seat beside her. I sat in stunned, frustrated silence, not wanting to interrupt her conversation. She had no idea I was sitting there, so she totally missed me rolling my eyes practically out of their sockets.
Back at Truth, I spent the next five minutes regularly looking up from my work to curl my upper lip and cut my eye at the woman sitting across from me. She ignored me and pretended to send text messages until her take-out order arrived and she was out of my life for good.
Well, you can't win them all, I thought, 15 minutes later as I walked to my 2pm appointment around the corner with a photographer. I was still smarting from that defeat yesterday when my quiet solitude at home was once again interrupted by noise on the other side of the front door. I went outside to see what it was and noticed that the front door to the apartment across the hall was open, allowing me to see past the white metal gate to the scene on the inside.
At least this time, unlike the last time they left their front door open (Sunday evening at 8.30), the people who live there weren't cooking, allowing the fumes from their meal to escape into the hallway. And unlike the day before, they hadn't left a bag of rubbish on the floor beside the front door as if they expected room service to stop by and pick it up.
I'd thought there were two middle-aged white men who spoke some European language that I didn't recognize living there. They were the ones stinking up the hallway with their dinner on Sunday. Yesterday, though, on the other side of the gate, I saw a shirtless black guy perched on a stool like Jabba the Hut, talking on his cell phone and listening to music. He clearly wasn't ashamed to put his flab on display for anyone who happened to be peeking inside.
I thought about asking him to keep it down and close the door while he was at it. Then I reconsidered: Maybe I'll submit a formal complaint to the building management. There's no law against talking in your own home, but surely there must be some edict about leaving your front door open, or placing a bag of trash in the hallway. This is, after all, neither a college dorm nor a hotel.
In the end, I decided to let it go. The last thing I wanted to do was antagonize my new neighbors. You never know when they might come in handy. I went back inside, turned on the TV and set the volume at 22. At least they weren't smoking. And if you can't beat them, drown them out.