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  • Writer's pictureErrol Rubenstein


The Cafe

There are coffee grounds in my iced Mocha.

I say nothing to the barista

practicing the manners I learned as a young boy,

that politeness drummed into me

over the years,

with repetition after repetition:

Elbows off the table.

Don’t slurp your soup.

Always use a spoon.

Knife and fork, never with your fingers.

Napkin on your lap.

Ms. Manners

Emily Post, the original etiquette expert,

lived in New York City,

home schooled and then educated

at Miss Graham’s finishing school,

whose great-great grandchildren

wrote the book “Emily Post’s Etiquette”

now in its 18th edition

the definitive guide to American manners,

died in 1960 in her New York apartment.

And the woman who carried on that tradition,

Judith Perlman, aka Ms. Manners, born in 1938

writing a three times weekly advice column

which appears in over 200 newspapers worldwide

and expounds her “heavy etiquette theory,”

on manners and politeness,

widely read and establishing her worldwide fame.

The Tape

And I remember when my mother,

so concerned that I would go out into the world

(as if I had not already gone out into the world)

without knowing etiquette or proper manners,

ordered me down to the basement of our townhouse

to watch a grainy videotape on an old VHS/VCR recorder,

of an older woman teaching manners,

neither Emily nor Judith but some second-rate substitute.

I sat there fuming at my mother

and regarding with disdain the woman on the tape

with her graying hair and veined hands,

her brittle, croaking voice, and trying, for my mother’s sake,

to pay attention, to learn something, anything,

though knowing full well I would come away

with at best only one or two grains of knowledge about manners,

the rest I would promptly forget.

And so, I watched the tape as it reeled along,

the ancient woman croaking like a wounded frog

about the Continental Style of holding a knife and fork

at dinners or lunches,

always fork in left hand, tines facing downwards;

how you should bring your mouth to the food,

to be sure none spilled on the table

for that would be oh so embarrassing

and you would blush like a schoolgirl,

in her pleated navy and white skirt and black laced shoes,

and your knife would be in your right hand,

and you should place the napkin on your chair

if getting up and leaving the table,

and always the outside left fork is used for salad

(“No, No,” she croaked “never the inside fork”),

and I wondered what she must have said to her children,

or whether she even had any children,

and if she did, if she drilled these rules into them as well--

or was it just me, the hapless watcher of this hapless tape

who was being subjected to what I was sure

was useless information that I would never use,

and wanting to just stay on in the basement

after the tape had ended, just to be alone

in the dark and the quiet like some meditative monk.

And not having to go upstairs

and put on a false smile and in a false voice

say, “Yes, that was very interesting”

or, “Oh, I learned so much”.


I was actually thinking

how soon I could escape the confines

of our red brick townhouse to go out with my friends

to ogle girls walking by in the street

with halter tops and cut-off jeans,

play basketball or soccer or tennis and gather,

as we did in those years,

when we would grab a six pack of beer and go to a friend’s house

to drink and hang out and generally cause trouble playing poker or watching TV;

or go to a house party where all sorts

of unmentionable things happened--

things that would shock my parents out of their complacency

if they knew about them.

Or maybe not,

for they probably knew more of what went on

than I gave them credit for, and I, knowing full well

that it was all a waste of time

and would come to nothing as most things in hindsight

at that age really do; and that especially

learning about etiquette was of absolutely no use whatsoever

and would never benefit me

or even be something

I would remember or put into practice as I grew up

and did go out in the world full force to encounter

the harsh realities of adult life.

But watching that tape was one thing I do remember

from those early years

when I lived at home

with my mother and father;

and to this day I do think about table manners

when at a lunch with friends,

Or a dinner with family.

For love is a force stronger than

any mistakes,

and the love given

is equal to the love received.

Published in 34THPARALLEL

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