[In 1997, the following column, “The New Wave,” won the New York Press Association’s “Best Column: Humorous Subjects” award in its “Best Newspaper” contest. I was the assistant editor and sports editor for a small-circulation weekly in Sullivan County, New York, “The River Reporter,” which means that I acquired a lot of experience for very little pay. It was mostly worth it.
It is one of the very first columns I wrote, which is something that I hated for years after—”It was only ‘beginner’s luck,'” I complained. (For years, I lived my life as someone who could think of an award or reward as a denial or a subtraction. And then ruefully rue my rueing.) I was 27 at the time, and I think I also assumed more awards were coming my way. They weren’t. The date of June 1996 is a bit of a guess from me as to its publication date. It might have been earlier that year. My family found a copy of the clip recently, so I have included it here, back-dated and with some 2014 interjections, because I can not help myself.]
The line at the local bakery for this morning’s hearty breakfast goodness was a long one. Some people arrived after me and were recognized by others ahead of me. These friends were all about the same age, 20 or so, and they politely took turns saying “Hey.” Eight “heys” rat-a-tatted out before they settled into their “what are you up tos.”
One friend waved to another behind me. The wave was one that has become popular in the last year or so [this was written in 1996] in this age group. Instead of the usual “Hi! How are you doing!” side-to-side shake of the hand next to the head, which has satisfied people in all their hand-waving needs since we first noticed there were people to wave at, it was cool, reserved. The traditional wave is too frantic, just another thing mom and dad do to embarrass us.
He raised his hand to half the height of the traditional wave, crooked his index finger above the rest, jammed his thumb into the crook of this finger, and passed the knot of fingers side to side four or five times. It was more of a grip than a wave. The expression on his face did not change.
To picture this new wave, imagine a baby swinging a rattle more vigorously than needed merely to make a noise, but not hard enough to hit itself in the head. Now imagine the baby without the rattle, but not crying because you took the rattle away. This is the wave. Now picture someone else, say your 20-year-old, doing it. He is sullen, but not so sullen that he cannot wave hello.
There are times when I think this is a valid wave. There are times when friendliness feels conventional, like something people do because they are supposed to. Why bother waving if you do not feel like it?
Conversation revealed that these friends had not seen each other in months. Their joy at seeing one another again after a semester away at college was not palpable. The wave, the greetings, and the conversation were all expressed with the emotional intensity of a lawyer representing a slightly unfriendly witness before a Congressional subcommittee.
People cannot commit even to saying hello to friends with emotion. Emotion is so … old. Their only solid commitment us to its nonexpression.
Teenagers’ telephone conversations are traditionally perfunctory: [2014 interrupts: “Why ‘traditionally’? Maybe ‘similarly’?”]
“You want to do something?”
“You want to come over?”
But this mode of conversation is extending way past adolescence into adulthood, middle age [2014 again: Ha!], and old age, which is new.
Walk around your town. Notice the other residents doing their shopping and browsing. As you and someone you do not know very well or even at all come upon each other, you may both smile, but it will not involve any teeth. The smiles will instead be grim little grins. You may both even say “Hi” as you pass, but you will wait for the other to speak first, and his faintly whispered “Hi” minus the “i” sound will be returned with your own clipped “Hi” greeting. One of you may even manage a “How are you?” but so inaudibly as to render the question silly.
I have been greeted by, and have returned this greeting to, people I know very well. Family members, even. We both appear to be in such a hurry, even though we are not, and we both know we are not. We cannot commit any any emotion to the exchange, because we do not want to look silly. One never knows when interpersonal disaster will strike, apparently.
It seems if we are too warm with each other, we think the other person will walk away muttering to himself, “Drunk.”
A suggestion: The next time you see someone give the new wave, drop him to the ground, pin him, flatten his waving hand against the pavement, and make him greet you. Make him express how truly happy he is to see you. The world should be more friendly, damn it.
Copyright 1996 The River Reporter