Topic: Society

Of the Lost Cabbie and the Guy in the Lobster Hat
(2/22/2007)

Part I: The Cab Ride

…so I grab a cab at LaGuardia to take me to an address in Times Square. I'm looking at a long and lousy day that had started with reviewing lecture materials at 5 AM: a meeting and ethics seminar at a law firm, a mad dash back to LaGuardia and a flight home, then a drive across DC to lead my law school ethics class from 8 to 10 PM. It's freezing, of course---drat that global warming!---and on top of everything else, my right arm is killing me. It's as if I dislocated it in my sleep, or perhaps I got a visit from Freddy Krueger.

The cab driver was pleasant, but when he got to Times Square, he was also without a clue. He asked me where the building was. I had given him the name and address, which was the limit of my competence on the topic. Yes, I've been there before. Yes, I'd know it if I saw the entrance. But find it? My sense of direction isn't just bad; it doesn't exist.

The cabbie's solution was to dump me in Times Square. "It has to be around here, somewhere close," he says as he stops. "No way," I say to him. I'm cold, I'm carrying about 40 pounds of books, and my right arm is killing me. If you drop me here, you're not getting a cent from me."

He went nuts; began screaming that I was robbing him. I pointed to the notice on the back seat, the "Passenger's Bill of Rights." It says that I have a right to driver who knows the geography of the city, I point out. It's his job to get me to the address I give him, and if he doesn't, the deal's off. The cab driver says that once he's reached Times Square, that fulfills his required level of knowledge of the locale.

That wasn't going to win the argument with me. "I hired you to take me to a specific address, not Times Square. If you had told me you weren't going to actually take me to the address, I wouldn't have hired you, would I? So take me there now, or lose your fee. Your choice." He took me there. Oh, he had to ask directions, an embarrassment for a cab driver anywhere but especially in New York. He cursed me the whole extra ten minutes or so. But he got his fare, and I even gave him a 20% tip. Sure; I could have been a nice guy and wandered around looking for the building myself, but surely I had no obligation to release him from his obligation to me.

Did I? Or was I just too tired, busy, stressed out and in pain to think about applying the Golden Rule?

Part II: The Guy in the Lobster Hat

Today I accompanied my wife to a doctor's appointment that she was dreading, and while we were checking in with the receptionist, a large, rotund fellow with a long white beard walked in to do likewise. On his head was what appeared to be a large, red lobster…a hat of sorts, though not a very seasonable or practical one. It was spectacular, however, with two large claws that drooped down about eyebrow level, and an impressive tail in the back. If I were ordering this specimen at Jimmy's Harborside in Boston, it would be about a four pounder.

I was amused at this unexpected sight, and said to my wife, loud enough so Lobster-topped Santa could hear me, "See? You think you have medical problems. This poor guy has a lobster attached to his head!" To my surprise, the man turned sharply and looked at me with a furious glare, snorted, and walked out the door, clearly offended, exactly as if I had said, "Wow! That's some harelip you have there!" or "Gee, where does a guy as fat as you buy suits?"

This makes no sense to me, and more than that, I think it's unethical conduct. It is understandably rude to make personal comments to strangers, call attention to their oddities, or stare. But there is such a thing as implied consent. When someone wears, for example, a clown outfit, he or she is presumably doing so to attract attention, and those who indicate that they are taking notice should be relieved of the obligation to do so unobtrusively. Choosing to wear a red ball on the end of one's nose, or Groucho glasses, or the old arrow-through-the head gag is the exact equivalent of wearing a sandwich board bearing the words, "Look at me! Notice me! Be amused!" Wearing these things and then appearing offended when others do as they have been asked is a bait-and-switch. It's a dirty trick.

Now, this man had a lobster on his head in a doctor's office. If it had been a psychiatrist's office, I suppose, I might have thought twice about commenting on the lobster, but it wasn't. Perhaps the plush red crustacean really was attached to his head, and he was having it removed. Or maybe the lobster hat is an emblem of his religion, and he takes it very seriously. Could it be that he didn't know there was a lobster on his head, and someone had secretly replaced his real hat as a cruel joke? Any of these admittedly unlikely scenarios would have justified his negative reaction, but call me suspicious: I don't believe it. This is a man who voluntarily appeared in public in provocative and mirth-inspiring head-gear and behaved as if I was a boor for mentioning it. His conduct was analogous to a woman who comes to work naked and asks indignantly, "What are you looking at?" I call foul. She knows damn well what I am looking at, and if she didn't want me to look, she would have worn an overcoat.

Admittedly they won't come into play very often, but just in case you are tempted to wear a lobster on your head in my presence, here are some simple ethical guidelines:

1. Don't intentionally dress or act funny if you have no sense of humor. Wanting to both maintain dignity and privacy while wearing comic accessories is a conflict of interest.

2. If you do go out in public wearing a lobster (or reasonable facsimile, including cloth lobsters and crayfish), you have a duty to understand that it will be taken by many as an indication that you are seeking comment. Responding negatively to those who take it as such is the equivalent of denying an evident fact, and is therefore dishonest.

3. If, by some strange set of circumstances, the lobster on your head has a serious purpose, you have an ethical duty (the duty of candor) to so inform those who see you, either before or after they try to engage you in light-hearted banter. "I think you should know that I wear the lobster hat to honor my late brother, who was eaten by a rogue lobster 20 years ago today," is always appropriate if true.

4. You have an obligation to learn your culture's comic images so you will not publicly proclaim to others a degree of levity and openness that you do not in fact possess. Among those things that will attract light commentary or jest if displayed in public in the United States in 2007: stilts, hula skirts, medieval armor, orangutans, facial tattoos of the Three Stooges, codpieces, horse costumes, chicken suits, and John Kerry in '08 buttons.

Oh yes…and lobster hats.

Learn those four easy rules, and neither of us will embarrass ourselves.

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