Here is what happens if you are a 20-something woman and you offer an able-bodied man under 70 years of age your seat on the subway. First he’ll take one earbud out, smile wanly at you, and be like: “Sorry, what?”
“Do you want to sit down?” you ask again, Genteel as Fuck.
He’ll glance quickly around the subway car, trying to figure out if he is on some new hidden camera MTV show called Emasculating Men on Public Transit. Finally, he’ll quizzically shake his head, no, thanks.
In a handful of cases, however -- in my case, specifically, it was one 40-something in a fedora on the Q train and one slim and acne-riddled college-age boy on the G -- he will straight-up glare at you in a way that’s not just hostile but also mildly paranoid: my balls are too majestic and girthy for sitting. Who told you my balls weren’t majestic? Was it Steve? Was it fuckin’ Steve?!
The interaction doesn’t end there. Responding to these glares as myself (“I am so sorry, I’m a journalist -- or, haha, not like a journalist, an Internet writer, but not like a blogger, I mean, for money, and I have to pretend to like -- oh this is your stop? OK, haha, bye.”) would obviously ruin the whole point of the experiment. So I actually had to devote as much energy to channeling the “man” part as I did the “gentle” part, just to be able to respond with the appropriately glassy and neutral face of someone who’s unthinkingly adhering to social mores.
Over the course of the 13 subway rides I took during my week of chivalry, not a single guy accepted the seat I offered him, not even the one clinging to the pole on a brutally unsteady uptown 6 while simultaneously attempting to read and highlight passages in Infinite Jest. Perhaps we accept the seat we think we deserve.
First: The Code
It wasn’t until the 20th century that chivalry started resembling what it is today: holding doors, walking on the curb side of the road, lending out your coat, and making women feel ambivalent. I consider myself a feminist, and at the same time I’ll judge a guy if he doesn’t pay on a first date. I get the cognitive dissonance there, but ideologies and rituals clash peacefully all the time, like not believing in God but still celebrating Christmas.
A fun urban legend dreamed up by men’s rights activists is that “these days,” when you hold the door for a woman, “she’ll scream at you,” because “feminism.” Actually, women generally equate those gestures with the basic unisex etiquette you’d hope for from the human race in general. Women unthinkingly hold doors for people all the time; we’re not monsters. (But I’ll cop to a Larry David-esque elevator-holding technique: I flail weakly for the closing doors just for show, then, as they close in the person’s face, I shrug helplessly like “Forget it, Jake, it’s elevators.”)
The chivalric code I was adhering to was genteel but pretty moderate -- the sort of behavior you’d imagine at a Vassar-Yale mixer in a J.D. Salinger book. I didn’t really think one week of it would be that different from my usual routine.
My First Day as a Gentleman
On my first day as a gentleman, it rained. I accompanied my boyfriend to his car to get his overnight bag and held an umbrella over him as we walked down the street. Greg is 6’3” and the spokes kept jabbing him in the forehead. He tried to grab the umbrella from me, but I wouldn’t let him.
For my past assignments, Greg has been a very good sport, even a co-conspirator. He’s let me write about his balls in national magazines. One time he even okayed having sex to a Disney soundtrack (with just the right amount of foot-dragging; if he’d been too okay with it I’d have called social services). It felt unnatural keeping my new ghost dick from him.
He hauled his bag of stuff out of the car.
“Hey, let me carry that,” I offered.
He seemed a little surprised but gave me the bag. It was my first true act of chivalry, and I felt... honestly, kind of emasculated, in a weird Victor/Victoria sort of way! If I were a dude, I’d want my persona to combine the courtly graces of Sir Lancelot with the crass, alpha-male sexuality of Stanley Kowalski, and that seems harder than I thought. Unfortunately, Stanley wouldn’t have smoldered quite as much if he held the door for people.
Speaking of which -- here’s a thing! Do you know how many strangers will squeeze through a door you’re holding open for the person you’re courting and force you to stand there continuing to hold it like an asshole? The answer is All The Strangers. I’m surprised I’m not still holding a door somewhere. I’ve obviously experienced this in my life before, but since my door-holding increased exponentially this week, this also jumped to scale.
If able-bodied men between 18 and 50 get stuck playing doorman for a crushing stream of thoughtless humanity as often as I did, when you add it all up, that HAS to add up to the same time commitment required to complete a two-year masters program.
In conclusion, doorstops.
Interlude: You’re All a Bunch of Thoughtless Bastards
On the bright side, holding doors until I withered and turned 90 and died gave me ample time to reflect. Men in New York aren’t gentlemen -- at least, not by the standards I was adhering to. Greg is a gentleman, constantly taking bags from me or opening doors for me without a thought, but we’re in a relationship. Outside of that, zero men offered me their seat on the subway. For that, you must be very young, very old, or pregnant. The latter is my only current option but then I’d have to raise it and everything.
It’s a shopworn Sex and the City cliché, but it’s true. A few Summers ago, I had to drag a wing chair from Chelsea to the East Village. I’d waddle a block or two, stop for breath, and start again. Guys breezed by me, empty-handed but for iced coffee or iPhones. At one point, like, 12 loud college bros in tank tops on their way to an Avicii concert or whatever the fuck, broke formation and went around me like I was a memorial statue.
I’d hoped I would be able to offer my services to a grateful dude-in-distress trying to lug a credenza down Berry Street, but no such luck -- it’s not really Craigslist furniture season. I’m kind of glad. If you remember how Buffalo Bill snatched Brooke Smith in Silence of the Lambs, you get why.
Dining: A Minefield for the Modern Gentleman
Later that week, Greg and I had the diplomatic (read: lazy) conversation about where to go for dinner that any long-term couple in New York has had 27,351,351 times:
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Mexican?”
“Ehhhhh, I just had it, where else?”
At this point I remember that as a gentleman, I have to make executive decisions. Making food-related decisions normally whips me into such a panic that I once ordered a sandwich with one slice of toasted bread and one slice of untoasted bread, like a girl in a shitty indie movie.
I pick the restaurant -- it’s a spot we go to all the time, and he’s fine with it. It has a two-hour wait, so I have to pick a bar. Still, no reaction. I wondered if maybe I call the shots more often than I think.
The first glimmer of any response to my newfound decision-making is when I order his drink. He seems to like it. Then again, there’s something Mad Men-era heteronormative about “getting your man a stiff drink.”
He doesn’t question it when I pay the bill, because we’ve been dating long enough that we’re constantly trying to get the other one to pay. Romance!
At the restaurant, I pull Greg’s chair back for him.
"Uh, thanks.” He is weirded out.
A waiter comes by and I barrel ahead with the whole order. As soon as I get to the “And he’ll have the--” part, I finally see a flicker of annoyance.
“What the fuck?”
“You love chorizo! I just wanted to see if I could guess what you’d order!”
“You ordered it.”
He gets up. I get up. He goes to the bathroom. I sit down. He returns from the bathroom. I stand up and pull his chair back.
Now he is very annoyed and about to say something but I immediately derail the conversation by bringing up Anthony Bourdain, which always works.
Finally, the check comes and I grab it.
“This is for an article, isn’t it.”
I knew the very first meal together would blow my cover. Under normal circumstances, asking me to throw in an extra $20 for dinner is like storming Normandy.
“Come on, you’re such a bad actress.”
Little does he know, I prove him wrong by not looking like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” when I pay the whole check.
The Gentleman Cracks
After five days of decision-making, carrying bags, standing in the rain, jacket-lending (it only fit over his shoulder), standing and sitting at restaurants so often I should really have a Jen Selter ass now, holding the door for what I vengefully began thinking of as the Human Centipede, AND feeling guilty that I couldn’t discuss it with him, I finally cracked.
Greg and I were on the way home from visiting my parents in New Jersey, and Greg insisted that I take him to “all the famous Jersey food spots.” Appeasing his Bourdain foodie standards would exacerbate my restaurant decision-making anxiety even without the week-long experiment -- plus I had to order for him. It didn’t help that diner menus are the length of Russian novels.
“He’ll have the #4. No, actually, the #7. No, actually--”
Then I burst into tears! Seriously, I really did.
Greg comforted me. After I calmed down, he said: “This isn’t very masculine of you.”
“You knew that was my assignment?”
“I’m not an idiot.”
The Gentleman Recovers, Blocks a Cock
There was only one really egregious item on my chivalry list, one that may lead us to believe that the etymology of “chivalry” isn’t actually “horsemanship” but “presumptuous cockblocking.” According to AskMen.com, it goes like this:
Assist An Unknown Woman With An Awkward Situation: ... It takes stones to go up to two strangers and pretend to be a girl’s boyfriend, [but] if you can read the situation, never once has a lady not appreciated the right kind of interference.
In my case, go up to two strangers and pretend to be a guy’s girlfriend, which goes against every fiber of my being. I didn’t care what the guy thought, but the idea of throwing off another girl’s game made me feel like a complete shithead. Greg had been telling me for a long time that friendships between guys are shallow and unemotional, and obviously this is part of the reason -- they’re socialized to have zero allegiance to each other.
Once I figured out at which establishment I’d be least likely to get punched in the face by either party, I invited some (female) friends to join me. In the spirit of the week, rather than the Pinot and whiskey sours I go for as a ~*~*lAdY~*~*, I drank Jack Daniel's and Sixpoint Sweet Action until my nerves were good and steeled.
Finally, I zeroed in on two people at the bar. The woman, in her 30s, was hammered and leaning close to him; the man of similar age seemed, by my estimation, to be less into it, but too polite to put the kibosh on the conversation.
I sauntered over, pretending to be uber-confident, and tapped the woman on the shoulder.
“I don’t think he’s interested.”
The man just stared at me. Closer up, I saw he was just as drunk, but simply less animated.
“I don’t think--”
(I felt my friends staring and laughing behind me like I was the newest episode of The Bachelor.)
“He’s my husband,” she said.
The Gentleman Calls It a Day
As great as that interaction went, I was very relieved when the week ended. I found out just how strongly men aren’t socialized to be on the receiving end of social graces from strangers -- offering them is a slight to their virility, or something. And also, paying for shit sucks.
Before men’s rights activists interpret this as some kind of acquiescence, I’ll say this: I’m not any more inclined to feel sorry for men than I was at the start. It takes a pretty odious man-baby to whine about how unfair it is that he has to pay on dates and conveniently ignore the considerably more unfair HEAPS of male privilege he was born into. A good rule of thumb for the privileged is the Spider-Man code: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
As long as you people are making a dollar to our $0.78, the least you can do is be gentlemen.
Preferably without that one cockblocking technique.