Life’s fun, and real, without ‘company manners’

The writer, who is now in her early 90s, as a young artist.
The writer, who is now in her early 90s, as a young artist.

BY OTIS KIDWELL BURGER  |  When I was young, I was considered fair game, a wild girl ready for anything, because I lived in Greenwich Village. Even years later, a visiting cousin from California became quite insistent that I take him to the “hot spots.” My husband and I owned a townhouse, our daughters went to St. Luke’s and Dalton and the only “hot spots” we knew were Nick’s, Eddie Condon’s and Chumley’s. And we once attended a performance by Lenny Bruce.

Bohemia was long, long gone, hippies were fading along with transvestites, homosexuals and other costumed identities. Bleecker St. had shed pushcarts, antique shops, ethnic stores and restaurants, and donned name-brand expensive clothing stores.

So what, I asked a real estate broker recently, still brings people to the Village now, when so much of its interesting eccentricities have been buried by company manners?

“The billionaires are pushing out the millionaires,” he said somewhat obscurely.

Well. Yes. The cold-water flats, the rooming houses, like ours was once, the old mom-and-pop stores have been replaced by supermarkets and condos. Our children and grandchildren move to Brooklyn, but even there rents are rising. What attracts people to the Village? Money and a colorful past. The words from passing smartphones are mostly about money. Corporate speak?

When I was five or six, I realized that even if you knew only one language, you spoke it in many different ways. The nursery squabblings and games were pruned and polished around the family dining table.

“Get to the point, Allyn,” my mother would admonish my long-winded little brother, until we all learned the proper give-and-take of conversation.  And when we met our parents’ friends or relatives, our mother would nudge, “Company manners!” i.e. become enviable offspring, a credit to our elders.

And I think most people learn to display  company manners to most of the world, most of the time, with variations; one brand of company manners to helpers, another to our pharmacist or doctors, who know more of our secrets, a rather garbled mouthful one to our dentists. Different types of company manners for the office, the school, new schoolmates, old buddies, longtime friends who know a lot about us, and even less-guarded versions for our children and lovers.

Do any of us ever really let down our guards? Even to our therapists?

I think it is unlikely that the Village will recapture the “first fine careless rapture” of its youth. However, company manners make it much easier to deal with a growing population and tourists more smoothly. Yet, many individuals and, of course, some companies use company manners to manipulate and conceal that, which in private may be quite startling.

For example, in 1946, I was in a Boston hospital with a gut infection, saved by the first penicillin to be released to civilians. Shots in the butt. Very painful. I was lying in bed, groggy, when an older woman was wheeled into the ward and tucked into a bed just across the aisle from the foot of mine. Oh, she was so absolutely a Southern belle! An accent thick as honey, full of magnolias and mint juleps. Everyone was “darlin’ ”, nurses were “so sweet to poor little me.” She clung, she dripped sweetness and well-rounded syllables. Everything was Georgia peachy.

Then she was wheeled away.

And returned a few hours later. I don’t know what they had taken out, but her Southern charm had gone with it. She was shrill, nasty and accusatory. And foul. The nurses were sleeping with the doctors, she ranted. Sinful happenings were everywhere in this stinking hospital.

Eventually, she was calmed down, quieted and tucked in. The lights went out, the ward became dark and quiet.

And then, beyond the foot of my bed, arose a small, triumphant voice.

“And I can pee 10 feet!” she said.

(I calculated groggily if I was within range.)

Well, that was more fun than Southern charm.

The Village was once more fun, too, with wilder voices beneath the company manners. Let’s hope the billionaires at least keep safe what we have left of it.