20 March 2006

Don't call me ma'am

The street I live on is very busy, particularly on the weekend, when the tourists come around. It can be hard to walk down the street, since so often they walk slowly, four abreast, oblivious to our city conventions, but I don't really mind them. Isn't it part of the appeal of living in New York that so many people want to be here?

On Saturday, I nearly walked into a couple of young men who were standing in front of Lenny's where I get my morning coffee (after dropping the plastic bag of cat poop in the trash can on the corner, an illegal practice my friend Anne suggested it as a way of preventing my apartment's atmosphere from being dominated by the litter box).

One of the young men stepped towards me, saying in a Southern accent, "ma'am, could you tell us where the nearest subway to 110th street is? We want to get up to the top of Central Park."

I've been feeling old lately. Or rather, I've been feeling that I look middle aged, and that other people see me that way, too. I'm turning 38 next month; you could argue that I actually am middle aged, but since my family tends to be long-lived, I'm going to tempt fate and say that I have a few more years before I reach the half-way point.

"You know," I said, "women don't like to be called ma'am. It makes us feel old."

Two legitimately middle-aged women -- they looked like they could be the men's mothers -- stepped forward, one saying, "that's right, we don't."

"But what should we call you," the man asked me.

"Oh, I don't know," I replied, having thought about this before myself, but never coming up with a good answer. "Miss" sounds ridiculous too. "This is New York. You could say 'hey you'".

"But we're from the South," he said, "we can't be rude."

"But it's rude to imply that someone looks old enough to be called ma'am," I said, all the while in good humor, but having to make sure I wasn't accidentally swinging the cat-litter-holding arm into his face.

"Anyway, just walk down this block to Central Park West, turn right, walk two more blocks, and the subway station is right there. Either of the uptown trains will take you to 110th."

They seemed inclined to talk more -- the whole interaction was friendly, though if they'd been New Yorkers they would have been suspicious of the directions I gave them -- but between the cat litter, and wanting coffee, and not wanting to contribute to the over-crowding of the street, I scurried away from them.

After I got my coffee, though, they were still out on the street, and I heard one of them say something about "not calling her ma'am", clearly talking about me.

I hope I gave them a little bit of local color to take home with them.


Blogger PG said...

Oh I would LOVE to be called 'Ma'am' by a couple of Southern gentlemen...that soft drawl is soooo seductive!

38 is nothing nowadays, 50 is the new middle age. Really.

GP (38 years old already...)

12:58 PM  
Blogger tammara said...

If you are called Ma'am in a southern accent - trust me, no age is implied (beyond "you are clearly not under 15"). One of my friends is 25 - and he says ma'am to girls his age. No doubt you just confused the heck out of that guy, lol.

(And PG is right - 50 is the new middle. And I intend to push it back some more when I get there...)

3:54 PM  
Blogger Pedestrian Rage said...

It's true; "ma'am" is ubiquitous in the South for "you are a woman over 20 I don't know, and I would like your attention." My dad tried to make me call him "sir," but I refused. It's charming in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but not when your father doesn't deserve the respect it implies.

When I was in high school, the drama kids took a trip to New York, and one of my friends said he had seen 2 guys kissing on the street (in 1986). He was grossed out, but I was *so* excited.

4:09 PM  
Blogger Stuntmother said...

Yeah, well, they're not IN the south anymore! Huh!

I'm with EW on this. Don't call me ma'am. Call me, your ladyship. Or madame, mayhap. Or perhaps, Radiant Light of Womanhood. Or even miss. I'll take miss, particularly if it's pronounced muz. Or perhaps Fair Traveller. As in, Excuse me, fair traveller on this fine New York morn, how can we best arrive at the top of the park?

But southern point taken, I guess. Reluctantly.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Bad Alice said...

Ah yes. I came back to the South after a long hiatus and was stunned that people still used ma'am and sir. I can't quite manage it, but it solves the problem of formal address. Think of it as the Southern "vous," a form of formal address for people you don't know well, to avoid offending them by unearned familiarity (the territory of car salesmen).

They could go with "not in the South anymore" although I haven't seen many Northerners adopt Southern manners when they arrive here--now that would be something to see. :)

9:00 AM  
Blogger Luna said...

My husband is from the South and he calls all the girls Darlin'. I still cringe and wait for him to get slapped whenever he does this.


2:59 PM  

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