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PRIVATE LIVES

Brazen New World : Evidence Mounts That Common Decency Is Rapidly Giving Way to Rampant Rudeness

July 29, 1990|MARGO KAUFMAN

WISH I COULD get rid of these vestiges of shame. They seem to be holding me back. Day after day, I see other people breeze through life unhampered by manners, promises or common decency. And I am filled with wonder.

It's not just a matter of having a lot of nerve. These folks do outrageous things and then, if you call them on it, they're completely unabashed. They either look bewildered and shrug or they accuse you of picking on them. I never know what to say except maybe Where do I go for lessons?

Recently, for example, I was in my car, waiting to exit a crowded underground parking structure. Without warning, the driver in front of me put his car in reverse and rammed my bumper. The impact shook me up a little, but what really unhinged me was that this squirrelly looking guy got out of his car, cursing and shouting, "You moron, this is all your fault!"

Gosh, and I was kind of expecting him to ask if I was OK.

I politely pointed out that his car had moved and mine had not. But he just raised his voice a few more decibels. I actually felt guilty for inspecting my car for damage. Not that it did me any good to find any. I asked if he was insured. "None of your beeswax," he snapped.

What was the correct response? Liar, liar, pants on fire?

I don't know why I was staggered by his gall. Shame is not a hot commodity anymore. Secretaries declare that their boss is in a meeting while in the background you can hear him hissing, "Lose this call." Unblushing triathletes in giant jeeps park in handicapped spaces, claiming, "just for a few minutes." Lithe blond nymphets roller-skate in string bikinis, and if a guy so much as gapes, they spin around--offended! And then there's Hollywood . . . .

But "dating is where the shameless really shine," my sister, Laurie, insists. "People will say the most unbelievable things, and they don't even wince."

Laurie recently met an attractive man on a train going to New York. As they chatted, he revealed that he'd just graduated from college. "He told me it wasn't because he was young," she recalls, "but because he took time off from school when his father died, to help his mother with the money. I thought he was pretty noble."

So she went out with Joe College--once. "At dinner, he mentioned something about visiting his parents," Laurie continues. "I said, 'Oh, did your mother remarry?' And he said, 'Why would you think that?' I said, 'Because you told me your father was dead.' And he said, 'Oh, well, I just said that because I figured I'd have a better shot at your going out with me.' "

"He didn't even feel bad when I caught him," Laurie marvels. "He was proud that the lie worked."

The Shameless are very goal-oriented. They'll do anything to get what they want. There's no favor too big for them to ask, no loan small enough for them to repay. To see them in action is to be struck dumb with fascination, wondering How could they possibly do that?

"A guy I know comes to me and says, 'I've got a million dollars to invest and I want you to draw up a portfolio,' " says Peter, a Beverly Hills stockbroker. "I spend a weekend working out long-term and short-term investments. He listens to my suggestions and doesn't say a thing."

Peter figured it was a wash. "Three months later," he says, "I bump into the guy at a party. He comes running up to me all excited and says, 'I don't know how to thank you. I took all your suggestions and gave them to my broker, and we're making a fortune.' But wait. Then this guy asks, 'You still have that box at Dodger Stadium? I could use two seats for Friday night's game.' "

Why am I surprised by such audacity? Look at our leaders. Politicians have always been shortchanged in the shame department, but lately it seems as if they've hit record lows.

When I break a promise, usually on some relatively minor thing like not returning someone's call the same day, I feel bad. It never occurs to me to issue, as President Bush does, a statement to tell the person that I've welshed. On the other hand, I've never promised millions and millions of people something while I was seeking the most responsible position in the country. Maybe that's the difference.

Or if I were the mayor of a nation's capital and I was videotaped in a hotel room coming on to someone other than my spouse and smoking crack, I would probably admit that I had made a mistake somewhere along the line. I'd even apologize. But the Shameless never apologize.

The other night I was driving down Melrose. I was stopped at a light when suddenly my car was rear-ended--hard. As soon as I could breathe again, I pulled over. A woman wanted by the fashion police for the abuse of bicycle pants got out of the car and lambasted me for making her late for dinner. "There's nothing wrong with your car," she howled. I wanted to grab my neck, cry whiplash and call out my mad-dog attorney.

I wish I could get rid of these vestiges of shame.

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