Detail from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Kaufhaus im Regen, 1926-7.
In the summer, a trip to the grocery store or the laundromat can pose one existential conundrum after another. On seemingly every corner of the city, one is greeted by a young person with a clipboard in his hand, an enormous T-shirt on his back, and desperation in his eyes. And then come the questions—huge, unanswerable, world-shaking.
DO YOU CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT?
SPARE A MOMENT FOR GAY RIGHTS?
DO YOU LIKE TO LAUGH?
ARE YOU REGISTERED TO VOTE IN NEW YORK STATE?
CAN I ASK YOU A QUESTION ABOUT YOUR HAIR?
YOU LOOK LIKE A FRIENDLY PERSON! CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING?
ARE YOU JEWISH?
DO YOU LOVE CHILDREN?
If you are feeling contemplative, you may think, DO I like to laugh? It really depends on the circumstances. Sometimes laughter is inappropriate. There’s nothing fun about nervous laughter. And what about cruel laughter at other people’s expense?
DO I care about the environment? What does caring mean, really? Am I doing enough to lower my carbon footprint? Does using Mrs. Meyer’s soap and Small Steps paper goods mean anything? I can’t wait until I run out of dishwashing liquid so I can coordinate all my scents. “Small Steps” is such a smart marketing ploy. It helps the self-satisfaction of selfish people like me.
CAN you ask me a question about my hair? I don’t know! Maybe something is preventing you—a magical charm or spell. Maybe it’s a highly specific kind of jinx that doesn’t allow you to ask people questions about their hair.
Of course, you rarely think anything of the kind. You think only, fleetingly, that you want to avoid an unpleasant moment with this poor, young person and his awful summer job. That you have no interest in seeing some midtown comedy show. That you already have a hairdresser you like and don’t need the hard sell about some full-service package from a dubious salon. At most, you might question the logic of having three canvassers for Children International stationed on a single block; is the idea to wear you down?
Sometimes I entertain myself by imagining what different philosophers would answer if someone posed these queries. I recommend this game, which works especially well with Sartre and Schopenhauer—Fichtean idealism, after all, applies to most of these situations. No matter which philosopher you choose, it adds an element of intellectual engagement to any errand.
I don’t have the heart for straight-up snubbing; I always mutter “sorry” as I scuttle past. I used to be more apologetic—sometimes I would explain that I didn’t have much money, or already gave to someone else. Occasionally I would explain my reservations about a certain charity and their allocation of funds—well, when I was a teenager. (After one lecture about how my dad had abandoned his ancestral people, I learned better than to explain I was half Jewish.)
Yesterday, I was walking down Broadway and was accosted by three young people in a row, all advocating for children of the world. People around me stared straight ahead; I did my usual sheepish shuffle. The woman directly ahead of me, however, took a different tack. “I’m going to walk that way now,” she said pleasantly to the young man, indicating a direction that was not his, and did just that. I wonder what philosopher she was channeling.
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