Bill Bryson; Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), December 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Bill Bryson; Night & Day


I did a foolish thing the other evening. I went into Murphy's, our local bar (and a jolly nice place too, let me say right here), and seated myself without

permission. You just don't do this in America, but I had an important recurring thought that I wanted to scribble down

before it left my head (namely, `There is

always a little more toothpaste in the tube.' Think about it), and anyway the place was practically empty, so I just took a table near the door.

After a couple of minutes the hostess - the customer seating manager - came up

to me and said in a level tone: `I see you've seated yourself.'

`Yup,' I replied proudly. `Dressed myself, too.'

`Didn't you see the sign?' She tilted her head at a big sign that said, `PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED'.

I have been in Murphy's about 200 times. I have seen the sign from every angle but supine. `Is there a sign?' I said innocently. `Gosh, I didn't notice it.'

She sighed. `Well, the server in this

section is very busy, so you may have to wait some time for her to get to you.'

There was no other customer within 50ft, but that wasn't the point. The point was that I had disregarded a posted notice and would have to serve a small sentence in purgatory as a consequence.

It would be entirely wrong to say that Americans love rules, but they have a certain regard for them. They behave towards rules in much the way the British behave towards queues - as something that is fundamental to the maintenance of a civilised and orderly society. I had, in effect, queue-jumped the `WAIT TO BE SEATED' sign.

I expect it may be something to do with our Germanic stock - on the whole I have no quibble with that. There are times, I have to say, when a little Teutonic order wouldn't go amiss in England - like when people take two spaces in a car park (the one offence for which, if I may speak freely here, I would welcome back capital punishment).

Sometimes, however, the American devotion to order goes too far. Our local public swimming pool, for example, has 27 posted rules - 27! - of which my favourite is `ONLY ONE BOUNCE PER DIVE ON DIVING BOARD'. And they're enforced.

What is frustrating is that it almost never matters whether these rules make any sense or not. A year or so ago, as a way of dealing with the increased threat of terrorism, America's airlines began requiring passengers to present photographic identification when checking in for a flight. The first I heard of this was when I showed up to catch a plane at an airport 120 miles from my home.

`I need to see some picture ID,' said the clerk, who had the charm and boundless motivation you would expect to find in someone whose primary employment perk is a nylon tie.

`Really? I don't think I have any,' I said and began patting my pockets, as if that would make a difference, and then pulling cards from my wallet. I had all kinds of identification - library card, credit cards, Social Security card, health insurance card, airline ticket - all with my name on them, but nothing with a picture. Finally, at the back of the wallet I found an old Iowa

driver's licence that I'd forgotten I even had. …

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