Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Age of Shoddy II

One of my favorite miniseries of all-time is Ken Burns’s The Civil War. For some strange reason, a particular segment headlined “The Age of Shoddy” resonates with me today. When I initially saw the installment, I knew what the word “shoddy” meant, but in a contemporary context only. I was unaware that in the 1860s, “shoddy” referred to an uber-cheap fabric manufactured by unscrupulous wartime profiteers—men who sold poor-quality uniforms at inflated prices to the Union army. At the time, The New York Herald contrasted the Silver Age and Golden Age of the world’s past with the unseemly Age of Shoddy, which spawned a shoddy aristocracy of millionaires. These were human beings at their most greedy amassing fortunes at the expense of those fighting and dying on the battlefield.

A modern definition of shoddy in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a pretentious vulgarity.” And this, I believe, is a term befitting the current age. Last year, for example, New York City subway cars were festooned with reminders of what courteous and civilized people shouldn’t do in them. Advice on placards included covering one’s nose when sneezing, not clipping one’s fingernails, and holding off for a spell on malodorous repasts. After all, a subway car isn’t a dining car. Granted, there have always been inconsiderate, loutish boors out and about, but the sheer number of them nowadays is staggering. And technology isn’t helping the situation, either.

Yesterday, while riding the Number 1 train into Manhattan, I was reminded again of the times in which we live. The subway car I was in had gotten pretty crowded by the time two teenage girls, I’d guess—although they might have been a little older—appeared with their breakfast sandwiches in hand. Standing directly above me, they began unwrapping their fare. The wafting odors of the sandwiches remained both potent and entrenched in the congested setting.

One of girls loudly complained about her sandwich, but didn’t say, “Pardon my French.” The worst of the boorishness was yet to come when the conductor announced that from 72nd Street to Chambers Street, the train would be running on the express track and only stopping at express stations, which didn’t include the girls’ stop. They opted to ask a fellow straphanger about their unanticipated predicament. “Where should we get off now?” The rider fielding their question was a walking-and-talking stereotype, who didn’t appreciate the unsolicited brain work heaped upon him. He angrily replied, “What are you asking me for? The map’s right there!” Audibly perturbed, he pointed to a subway map, which was—in fact—directly in front of the girls and, unfortunately, right above my head as well.

“We just asked you a question,” the more combative of the two girls said in response. “What’s your problem?” The put-upon passenger out of central casting then walked over to the map and a comedic—were it a sitcom—back-and-forth ensued. He was still visibly angry that he had somehow been lured into helping these damsels in distress, but it was nonetheless his life mission now to sort out the girls’ conundrum.

At ten o’clock in the morning, a man with boozy breath and two girls munching on salami and egg heroes kibitzed over my head. I would have found the circumstances and dialogue quite amusing on Sanford and Son. But it wasn’t Sanford and Son and I heaved a huge sigh of relief when one and all exited at Times Square. The girls were looking for the A train, which was simple enough to connect with, but the guy with the foul morning breath was insistent that they absolutely needed to get on the R train to reach their destination. “We ain’t goin’ on no R,” I heard one of them say as a parting salvo.

When I returned home, I switched on the news and saw clips of my globetrotting president. The Age of Shoddy II, I thought, “a pretentious vulgarity” for sure. Whether I’m walking on the street, riding in a train, or tuning in the news, it’s an age like no other.

(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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