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Pssst! You’re in public, not home alone

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

“That must be really good.”

I could claim the comment just slipped out.

But it didn’t. I sat there, on the 7:54 a.m. Metra train into the city for a long while, watching the lady in front of me lick the square red plastic lid from a food container.

It wasn’t a quick, clandestine lick either, but a thorough, methodical, inch by inch going over of the entire surface. She was like a cat scouring a can of tuna. A hungry cat. As if she were painting the lid with her tongue.

Long ago I gave up the notion of trying to reprimand strangers in public. That ship has sailed. I can’t tell if society has become more lax — I’m reluctant to say that, since every pundit since Juvenal has echoed the thought — or I’m getting old and tired of the struggle.

Just last week, a young man sat on the train, shoes off, picking at his bare feet.

Ten years ago, I would have blurted out, “God, that’s disgusting!” And I almost said it now, after weighing that comment versus the less confrontational, “You do realize you’re out in public, don’t you?”

But it was the start of the train ride. I’d have to sit for the next 40 minutes in the sulfurous fallout of whatever ugly exchange ensued between us. A public self-podiatrist is not looking for external guidance. No one else seemed to care. It was easier for me to look out the window and forget about it, or try to. (These things tend to lodge in the mind — I still remember the woman who liked to floss on the 151 bus, and that was in the mid-1990s).

Perhaps this is the Path of the Coward.

I could turn this into an elegy for public manners, how women once wore white gloves and men wore spotless fedoras and if your shoes weren’t shined people would hiss at you in the street. Sydney J. Harris once wrote a column upbraiding his fellow passengers on a long airplane flight for loosening their ties and taking off their jackets.

But that world took a lot of mental energy to enforce — everyone’s conduct was your business — and I’m open to the idea that this more freewheeling society has its advantages. It’s okay if young men go to the office in flip-flops and cargo shorts. Their bosses obviously don’t care; why should I? It can be liberating, to not view every lapse in judgment as a personal affront, to not be constantly trying to police life. It’s a big crazy world. Have fun.

Email helped teach me that. I could spend my entire day arguing with mean-spirited, fact-deprived zealots who I’ve never met, if I didn’t realize — finally, after years — that it isn’t my job to debate everyone who has Internet access. The very fact that you eagerly embrace utter nonsense should remove you from the debate, anyway, since if you’re credulous enough to believe some laughable fallacy, where’s the victory in getting you to grudgingly admit the possibility of something else? Not that you ever would.

No thank you. Pass. What is true for strangers online is double true in public. I wouldn’t have mentioned anything to the lid-licking woman, either, but — secret optimist that I am — I actually imagined the container held something wonderful. Once, in New Orleans, we were served a carrot soup of such sublime deliciousness that I forgot myself and, after scraping all I could with my spoon, raised the bowl to my face to get the last drop.

I imaged her turning with an Audrey Hepburn smile. “Why yes!” she’d bubble. “This is my grandmother’s special Easter Soup, seasoned with fennel harvested in the old country and smuggled in through customs...”

No way. The woman paused, as if confirming to herself that she was really being addressed, then turned to look at me.

“That must be really good,” I said again.

“It is,” she said. “Cereal that’s been in the refrigerator three days. My husband left it. I don’t normally like corn flakes, but I wasn’t feeling well.” She went back to licking the lid.

For a moment, I thought she was being sarcastic, but again that was the giddy optimist in me. She seemed to be sincerely praising the merits of soggy, three-day-old corn flakes.

Meanwhile — you can’t make this up — I heard a loud “Shhhh!!!” from behind. The guy in the seat behind me was being bothered by our conversation. We were intruding upon his zenlike morning solitude. I consider whipping around and saying, “Hey pal, this isn’t the Quiet Car. You’re not in your rumpus room in Glenview, you’re on a train, so suck it up.”

But lesson learned, I did not respond. Frankly, if a commuter someday grabs a length of neoprene tubing and begins giving himself an enema on the 8:12, I plan to pop in the iPod earbuds, crank the volume, look out the window and ignore the whole thing. What does it matter? People seem to feel real life is limited to what happens online.

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