Codes of Etiquette

By Williams, Patricia J. | The Nation, April 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Codes of Etiquette


Williams, Patricia J., The Nation


Recently, Nilas Martins, principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, was stopped in Washington, DC, by gun-wielding policemen. They checked him out and let him go, but the incident prompted National Public Radio to seek the advice of Letitia Baldrige, the Kennedy-era doyenne of protocol, to see if there might be an appropriate way to comport oneself while enduring martial law. Crisis etiquette, purred Ms. Baldrige, "goes back to basic character.... You just look past the assault rifles." With all due respect, suspect profiles of the new millennium--to whose ranks we welcome tall, Danish-born ballet dancers--would be best advised to turn to Ms. Baldrige's long-lost half-sister, LaTeesha, for tips about comportment under lockdown.

"Keep your eyes on the assault rifles and your hands in plain view," Ms. LaTeesha prayed me to relay to Mr. Martins.

She and I were sitting in her tastefully appointed salon located in the exclusive enclave of Southeast Estates, a grated community in Washington, DC.

"Shouldn't that be 'gated'?" I asked over an elegant tea of finger sandwiches and marrons glaces.

"Not at all," she replied. "When the gates to one's community are shrouded in suspicion, inhabitants risk being taken for communists or cultists." Gesturing toward the lovely weave of wrought iron bars over her windows, she observed, "Grates are more consistent with civic virtues like independence and autonomy. In Southeast, every home is a bunker unto itself."

I asked Ms. LaTeesha how the well-bred suspect profile might deal with the vapors and vexation attending the burden of constant scrutiny: During my travels to her home, Pinkerton guards in the bus station had wanted to search my backpack, and airport security had refused to let my 10-year-old son board the plane because he had no identification other than his library card.

"Smelling salts," advised Ms. LaTeesha. "A little Waterford vial of ammoniated smelling salts should be carried next to one's hanky, as a fashionable and unobtrusive bracer in the face of minor interrogation. A flask of sherry is permitted in the wake of routine strip search. And you will be forgiven a long draught of fortified malt liquor when a loved one has been detained in an unidentified location."

I asked if she didn't think it insufferable that a 10-year-old should be pressed to provide official documentation to travel from one city to another. She looked at me sharply: "Doesn't your son have a passport?"

"To peregrinate within our native homeland?"

"It's a nice touch. All the finer classes of suspect profile accessorize their children with passports. You'd be amazed at how many more doors open than with the lowly library card. Flash a passport, the airlines will put an X in front of his name and, lo, the shadow of Tom Ridge will pass over."

She thought for a moment. "A suspect profile is a bit like a celebrity. …

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