Let’s stop dropping in

A man’s home isn’t his castle any more— it’s a bus stop. If you insist on dropping in on people after reading this harrowing case history you deserve to be snubbed

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN PLEADS July 19 1958

Let’s stop dropping in

A man’s home isn’t his castle any more— it’s a bus stop. If you insist on dropping in on people after reading this harrowing case history you deserve to be snubbed

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN PLEADS July 19 1958

Let’s stop dropping in

A man’s home isn’t his castle any more— it’s a bus stop. If you insist on dropping in on people after reading this harrowing case history you deserve to be snubbed

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN PLEADS

Either the etiquette books will have to come up with some rules about dropping in on people without warning or we're going to have to go back to being "at home” at certain times to our friends and neighbors. It might have been a folksy custom for our forefathers to drop in on one another once or twice a year when they happened to be passing by. But these motorized days we are circling one another like satellites, ready to drop in any time, and it can be a real problem.

For one thing there's the problem of whether or not to leave TV on or turn it off, which brings on those little bits of verbal cable -trouble that go: "1 wasn’t really watching it. I'll turn it off.” "No, no. Leave it on. 1 ¡ike December Bride.” "Well—do you really want to see it?” "Yes—1 mean only if you do.” 1

notice that some people just turn .the sound off and leave the picture on, as one cultured, matronly friend of mine did recently when 1 dropped in to visit her in the middle of Have Gun Will Travel. I noticed that it gave us both a sort of Dropper-1 n squint as we tried to concentrate on cultural topics w-ithout losing track of where Paladin went.

Not that 1 blamed her. It’s hard to turn TV right off when you’ve got well into a program. I know I couldn't get my mind on a visit from Albert Schweitzer if Gunsmoke got there first. I've sat telling my daughters that it was disgusting the way they preferred TV to homework, good books and good conversation. Then unexpected callers have arrived, and I’ve suddenly realized with a shock, as 1 switched off' a gripping murder mystery, that

1 preferred TV to my friends. If you ask me, the whole problem of TV and visitors is something that the etiquette experts should take up instead of what to say when a guest spills a glass of waiter. It's going to cause a lot more soggy friendships.

I've noticed, too, that the writers of books on etiquette arc still receiving visitors while languidly lying on a couch smelling roses in some big old mansion. Emily Post, for instance, says that it’s permissible to call past your maid, who has just said that you're not at home, “Come in, Mary! I am at home to you!”

This implies a brand of spacious living that has nothing to do w-ith today's functional little ranch houses. You don't call past anyone to a visitor today. From the time you open the

I

door the visitor is in full view and earshot from every angle of modern interior design. He doesn’t visit a person: he joins the family and anything that happens to be going on.

A little while ago 1 dropped in on a friend at the end of a kid's birthday party. 1 stood there, somehow convinced that everybody was glad to see me, while the mother waded around through tissue paper and mixtures of crushed chocolate cake and candles, trying to get her youngsters quietened down in the bedroom, which was just around a short corner from where 1 sat. Finally she flaked out in a chair and gave a sigh that would have blown out the candles on a cake six feet away, just as I said:

“By gosh! Í forgot I brought the kids some little airplanes.”

1 was still trying to figure out why she was signaling frantically when the kids started coming out of the bedroom in their pajamas to kiss me goodnight, kiss their mother goodnight, kiss their father goodnight, kiss the dog goodnight and look for the airplanes. Their mother looked as if she’d liked to have kissed me goodnight with a handful of soft strawberry ice cream.

Another thing about surprising people in today's homes is that it gives nobody time to prepare his mind or face for the surprise. I’ve sat down after supper to do my accounts and have looked up vaguely from my desk at the sound of the doorbell, just as I had totaled up my debts and found that what 1 suspected was true—I was bankrupt. There was a woman from across the street standing on

my porch with one thumb on the doorbell, while she leaned over my porch railing looking into my window to see if I were answering it. I sat there staring back at her with the exact expression I'd been using on a thousanddollar overdraft. Forming my lips in a delighted “Hello, there!” as I got up to let her in didn't help. She’d seen me the first time, and it was the last time she dropped in.

Actually 1 didn't know the woman very well, which is another problem about dropping in today. Fifty years ago people tended to have the same neighbors for the biggest part of a lifetime. But people haven’t the same roots as they used to have, and often move into new subdivisions without hedges, trees or fences, with a lot of strange people who have more leicontinued on page 31

Let’s stop dropping in

Continued from page 25

sure time to drop in on one another than at any other time in history.

There’s one neighbor who visits me regularly and sits in my living room looking oddly as if he were sitting in front of an electric fan. with his tie blown back over his shoulder and his lips drawn back as he shouts "Eh?” at me in the manner of a man trying to be heard over a strong wind. The only reason he drops in, as far as I can see. is that there’s a light on in my house and no fence to keep him out, because the minute I start to say anything he shouts "Eh?” and laughs. Not that it matters, as I'm waiting for him to leave and just filling in time by mumbling something about cold weather being colder than warm weather. But between my not thinking of what I'm saying and his not listening to it. we might as well be in two other subdivisions.

"Just thought I'd drop in and see if you were still alive." he says.

“Oh, yes," 1 say, chuckling, "I’m alive.”

"Eh?” he shouts, baring his teeth as if looking out of the cockpit of an old Sopwith Camel.

"I'm alive.” I say.

"Oh, yes,” he says, as if thinking maybe writers get funnier as they go along. "Well, there's no use complaining. Nobody ever listens anyway."

We stare at one another.

"Have you minded the heat?" he says.

"Not much. It isn't the heat, it’s the

"Eh?” he shouts.

I wonder how long a conversation like this can last and realize it can go on until about 1978 if someone feeds us occasionally.

Some days there are so many people dropping in at my place that it gets a bit like a bus station. One day. within an hour, when I was trying to get some work done, an old gentleman dropped in with a little wax-paper bag of old bones for my cat; a literary woman dropped in with a copy of a quarterly called The Flame; a retired railway worker across the road came over when he saw me emptying my wastepaper basket and kept me there holding the lid of my garbage pail like Horatio defending the bridge while he tried to remember the name of an Ontario contractor who fitted into some story he told me.

“You know his name,” he said. "He used to be a big man in shingles in Oshawa.”

"I know who you mean. I said, edging toward the door. "It II come to me later.”

Just then the literary woman came back and said she'd forgotten to copy something out of I he Flame and could she have it back for a few minutes and I realized I'd just thrown it out. But 1 couldn’t tell her this and said I had slipped it into a magazine somewhere. I had to pretend to look for it lor ten minutes. I was thinking of showing her the little bag of bones to get her mind off it, when the second man distracted her for me by coming back and calling in the screen door.

“I thought of that name,” he said,

“Dropping-in is based on false concepts — the one: We like our friends for what they are“

smiling with relief. “It was Gerrard.”

We should be able to just explain intelligently to people that they’ve dropped in at the wrong time, without hurting their feelings. But I've only seen this tried once, by a woman who is devoted to music and who lives for Sunday afternoon when she and her husband listen to the New York Philharmonic. One time a new neighbor of hers dropped in halfway through Beethoven's Seventh, with some shrubs, and the woman in the house explained at the door that as far as she was concerned she was glad to see her. But, she said, with an enlightened little smile, she didn’t know how Toscanini would feel about it, and she thought it was inconsiderate to interrupt a great artist and didn’t the shrub-bearer think so too?

The woman said she understood perfectly and she was glad she’d been so frank and enlightened and honest with her, then went home and told her husband that they lived next door to lunatics. The closest this woman’s family has ever got to serious music is that they all have Italian motor scooters.

Anyway, the whole idea of dropping in on people without warning is based on some false concepts, like the one that true friendship overrides everything and that we like our friends for what they are, not for what they’re wearing or doing or how we catch them.

But we don’t like our friends for what they are: we like them for what they’d like to be, and it’s only fair to give them a chance to get into the part, which, incidentally, is the idea behind formality. We don’t even like ourselves for what we are. I know that visitors have caught sides of me showing that I don’t expect or want anyone to like. I’ve had my kids’ minister drop in because he “wanted to meet the father of two such lovely girls,’’ a few minutes after I’d been threatening to clobber them with their bicycle pump and was sitting there trying to raise my feeling of togetherness to a level where I just wanted to kick them. Another time, a big, gentle gardener of whom I’ve always been very fond, and who is one of the few non-writers I know who thinks writing is hard work, dropped in or. me when I'd been feeling a bit nervous and had decided to take three straight belts of bourbon before going to bed, figuring I

would be upstairs in bed before I went into orbit. I'd just finished the last one and was waiting for my breath to come back when this man dropped in. I sat there talking to him for half an hour carefully uncrossing my eyes and trying to pronounce things like chrysanthemum without letting him know there was anything wrong with me except that I was just plain tuckered out.

I’ve dropped in on people at even worse times. I’ve stood smiling on a friend’s porch looking through those little windows in the front door waiting for the first delighted sign of recognition and have seen people's faces stiffen as if they’d seen a harpy. One time a little boy raced delightedly into a house from the curb to announce my unexpected arrival and I heard an agonized “Oh, NO!” float out of an upstairs window somebody thought was closed. I've also dropped into the dead centre of a family fight and begun apologizing and saying 1 shouldn’t have come, and they've said no, no, it’s alright, stay right where you are, and sat looking at one another with bloodless faces and banking shots off me for the end pocket. I’ve seen a visit like this end with me sitting silently with the husband, whose eyes kept wandering to the bedroom where his wife had disappeared apparently to hang herself.

I’ve dropped into homes intending to visit guys that I’ve only known downtown, where they gave the impression that they lived a jolly, uninhibited life, and found myself visiting wives who looked as if they wished I’d drop dead. One noon hour I ran into a man I used to work with who reminded me, as we chatted at the corner of Bay and Adelaide, that I’d never been out to his place and why didn’t I drop in?

“You’re not waiting for a special engraved invitation are you?” he chuckled as he edged off into the crowd.

I didn’t think of it again, and I know now that he didn't either, until one day in the summer up at Woodland Beach, where we both had cottages. I’d been out in the morning rounding up my kids’ tomcat who had been on a three-day binge and when I caught him and started back to my cottage I recognized the name of this man’s place and dropped in. He was at home with his only daughter and

his wife, a tall, unhappy-looking blonde who sat with her knees pressed together peering at her toes. I sat talking and chain-smoking and stroking my cat, who lay in my lap upside down and looking relaxed except for an occasional bite at a flea. I gradually realized that I was doing all the talking. This guy sat with the most intent and nervously expectant expression I’ve ever seen. It was a few weeks later that I found out that his wife was allergic to cigarette smoke, his daughter was allergic to cat fur. he was allergic to his wife, who didn't like his friends, and they all were allergic to me. What he had been looking forward to so expectantly was my leaving, and if this is folksy informality give me a good old formal invitation every time. It can be engraved, and delivered on a silver platter by a coachman, so long as everyone knows I’m coming.

This sort of thing could be avoided if we went back to using those cards people used to send out—Mrs. So-and-So will be at home from four to six. This didn't mean that she would be out at all other times. It just meant that she didn't want to see anybody in between, and it was a lot more honest and realistic than pretending that we want to see everybody any time. It was also a lot less rude than the way, for instance. I received a visitor recently when I was lying under the kitchen sink trying to repair a drain. An inveterate dropper-in from across the street said "Hoo hoo" through the open door. 1 thought it was my wife and called to her, "All we need now is someone to drop in." When I finally came out from under the sink like an old slug, she was talking to my wife in the living room and ignoring me and my transparent attempt to patch things up with. "I was just telling my wife that that hole in the sink was big enough to drop in." It was bad enough to be exposed as a rather incompetent liar, but it was worse to be exposed as a liar who looked the way 1 looked. I don't look picturesquely industrious when I lock horns with a job around the house. I look vaguely unhealthy. I don't look like a workman: I look like a tout, bulging through an old pair of pants I bought when the London Drape was all the rage, a sort of 1932 version of the Teddy Bear outfit.

But my behavior was no more rude, when you come to think of it, than dropping in on people without warning. These visits are always planned for the convenience of the dropper-in. We never drop in on anyone when we're worried, depressed or jammed for time, but we often drop in on people when they’re in all these three states at once. We all have a peculiar conviction that when we’re feeling good everybody wants to see us.

I remember one time in Florida when a middle-aged couple I know, who are enthusiastic bird watchers and shell pickers and who haven't missed a sunrise since they were married, dropped in in the middle of the morning-—their morning—to tell an unhealthy friend of mine that they'd spotted a wood ibis. They just walked in and broke the news to him as he was sitting there holding cold cotton wads to his eyes and groping for his cigarettes. Once they'd said they’d seen a wood ibis, he figured it finished everything they had to say to one another until the cocktail hour, and just wandered back into his bedroom.

It hurt their feelings and ended a iledgling friendship before it started, and I suppose was unforgivable. But if you ask me, it was their own fault. They had indulged in an uncivilized habit, and if they were uncivilly treated because of it they were only getting exactly what they deserved. ★