Another 7-11 Ethics Moment

Regular readers here know that my local 7-11 (on Quaker Lane in Alexandria, Va.) has been the site of multiple ethics dramas and lessons. Another occurred yesterday.

For about a year now, a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman have routinely sat outside the store, trying to make eye-contact with customers and persuade them into handing over money, cigarettes, or to buy them something inside. (The two are never there at the same time: maybe they have a schedule.) We think, but it is just speculation, that they are residents of a local half-way house that is a few blocks away. Yesterday, it was the woman’s turn. She knows both me and my wife, especially Grace, who has often replied positively to her entreaties over the last 12 months, as have I, though less often.  Yesterday we were in a rush, and entered the store without interacting with her. She followed my wife into the 7-11, knew I was behind her, and let the door close right in my face, nearly knocking me flat. Later she managed to beg four cigarettes off my wife.

I know. The woman is probably mentally ill. She was dealt a poor hand of whist, to use Clarence Darrow’s favorite analogy for life. Nevertheless, she is very aware that we have been kind and generous to her. I don’t ask much or expect much, but I do not like being treated as a mark or a chump. I have held the door open for her at that 7-11; I always acknowledged her existence: she received the same respect and civility that everyone does whom I encounter at that neighborhood establishment. The least she could do is hold the door open and not let it swing shut just as I am trying to enter. The message her actions conveyed was that if I am a not submitting to her charity extortion, I’m a non-person, as far as she is concerned.

Got it. She can now look elsewhere for her free hot dogs, cigarettes, and ten dollar bills. I know she doesn’t regard me as a neighbor, or a benefactor, or an ally, but as a gullible, inexhaustible  resource to be taken advantage of.

The hell with that.

I’ll still hold the door open for her, however, like I do for everyone else.

Reviving The Ethics Canary At The 7-11

Uncharacteristically, I began the day with a visit to my local 7-11, as we realized that the Marshalls were out of coffee and half-and-half. The perilous non-caffeinated drive was aided by the new  Sirius-XM Beatles Channel, which now follows the excellent policy of loading up the waking-up hours with early Fab Four classics, so I was safely stimulated  by joyous songs like “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Eight Days a Week.”

The 7-11 was mobbed, as it usually is in the morning, and the line was very long. I noticed that the customers were filing past the register and the single clerk on duty almost wordlessly. Many were wearing earphones, and those who were not looked down at the counter and silently handed over their money. The clerk, a young Hispanic-American man whom I had never seen there before, was similarly unengaged, not speaking to anyone,  looking down and sullen.

This is not healthy for a community. The lack of what once was considered the normal, friendly, social interaction at a central gathering place is yet another ethics canary dying in society’s mine.

When the line got to me, I tried something bold: I looked at the young man and said, “How are you today?”  He actually shook his head quickly like a cartoon character  who sees something stunning. “Me? Good! How are you?” he said in halting English. Now he was smiling and making a connection with another human being. “I’m good,” I said.”It’s a beautiful day. When  do you get off?”

“Eleven o’clock…long day,” he said, rolling his eyes. (Holy crap!) “Have a good day, man. Thanks.”

I have to believe that simple, polite, daily contact and conversation among people can perform wonders returning mutual respect and civility to our nation, and even our civic discourse. This was a prominent habit of my father, who often treated strangers like old friends, much to the embarrassment of my mother, who tended to regard anyone who wasn’t Greek as a space alien.

Too often, I realize, when I am tired, preoccupied, stressed and in a hurry, I fail to extend to those I encounter in the random chaos of life the basic courtesy of looking them in the eye, showing that I think they matter and are every bit as important as I am (for they are), and making what may be the only time the two of us share a moment in our lives a pleasant interlude. That young man’s smile this morning should remind me, at such times, that this simple and painless gesture, repeated enough times by enough of us, can heal many of society’s self-inflicted wounds.

Ethics Quote of the Week: Political Scientist Ross Baker

“Traditionally, there was a kind of courtesy extended to the party having the convention — the [other] party would basically stay out of the public eye.” 

—- Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, commenting on the Obama campaign breaking with tradition to schedule the President and Vice-president Biden in high-profile campaign appearances during GOP Convention week, in which they will be “assaulting” the Romney-Ryan ticket.

No, President Nixon didn’t give campaign speeches while Democrats were nominating McGovern in 1972. On the other hand, he DID have the DNC offices burglarized…

Such traditions build and preserve comity, collegiality, civility and cooperation between the two parties, which, of course, greatly facilitates responsive and responsible government. It also creates trust. In an environment where neither party trusts the other, however (“If we don’t bash them during their convention, they’ll still bash us during ours!”…which is almost certainly true, by the way…), and where neither party–neither party—possesses leadership with the skills, integrity, courage or statesmanship to broker a mutual agreement to preserve such a useful symbolic gesture of respect and courtesy, such traditions are doomed.

Don’t think we are not the worse for the abandonment of these traditions, because we are, and will be until a commitment to cooperation and mutual respect regenerates, if it ever does. Responsible leadership would help.

Yes, Candidate Obama promised an end to “politics as usual.” Funny…I never though that would mean that politics would get even nastier.


Facts: Commentary

Graphic: Where’s My Fucking Money?

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

Reporting the Confessed Killer in Your Midst: An Ethical Dilemma That Isn’t

Pedro Hernandez, now under arrest for the murder of Etan Patz, the  6-year-old boy whose 1979 murder was a national mystery, confessed that he had strangled the child just a few years later to his prayer group at St. Anthony of Padua, a Catholic church in Camden, New Jersey.  No one, including Hernandez’s relatives who learned of his confession and the prayer group leader, reported the confession to authorities.

Hernandez’s sister, Milagros Hernandez, confessed what she described as a “family secret” to a reporter for the New York Daily News over the weekend, setting off “What would you do?” internet polls and blog posts, as if there was any question about the proper conduct for a family member or church group member who hears a murder confession. There is no question.  You report it. There are no debate issues, no competing considerations, no claims of loyalty or confidentiality.  It isn’t a Golden Rule dilemma, as in “Would I want someone to report me if I confessed to him in confidence that he had strangled a little boy?”  It isn’t a dilemma at all. There is only one right thing to do, and if you think otherwise, you missed a couple of key meetings when the ethics were being handed out. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce and Apologist for Cultural Rot: New York’s 92nd Street Y

Complete cultural and intellectual rot in America gets ever closer, thanks to people who think and act like the honchos at New York’s 92nd Street Y.

It sponsored an evening of conversation between art critic and New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon and Steve Martin, who is many things: a comedy writer, a wit, a banjo player, a slapstick comic, a serious actor, a novelist and a playwright. (Also a second-rate Inspector Clouseau.)  In this case, it was the novelist Martin who had come to chat; Martin’s new novel, An Object of Beauty, has just hit the book stores to rave reviews. But the sold-out audience of 900 and pay-per-view television audience apparently didn’t want or expect to hear THAT Steve Martin…they wanted the one with the arrow through his head and “happy feet.” So many of them complained, some in e-mails send during the event, and after the subdued and erudite session was over, that the Y sent them refunds, with this note: Continue reading

Elevator Ethics

Randy Cohen surprised me today. “The Ethicist,” in his weekly column in the Times Magazine, responded to a  question from a Chinese citizen whose office building had only one working elevator, resulting in long lines of office workers waiting to catch a lift to distant floors. Cohen’s inquirer asked if it was unethical for him to run up the stairs to a higher floor, and secure a place on the elevator before it arrived on his original floor, one below.

Cohen said he was “cutting in line,” and that it was unethical. Randy may well be right, but I’m not immediately convinced. Continue reading

A Traveling Photographer’s Code of Ethics

The Photo Foodies have posted a sensible, compassionate, clear ethics code for photographers, particularly applicable to those working in foreign countries. It concentrates on the act of taking the photograph, not what one does with the image afterward.

Excellent work, Photo Foodies, and thanks for not calling the site “Foto Foodies.” I know it must have been a temptation.

You can read the entire post here. These are the tenets of the code: Continue reading

Why Public Flossing IS Our Business

In today’s Sunday New York Times, the City Room column is devoted to the increasingly common topic of public grooming, specifically flossing one’s teeth in public. Lion Calandra recounts an exchange with a young woman doing her dental hygeine on the subway, who finished by throwing her used floss to the subway car floor.

“Maybe you should do that at home,” Calandra suggested. “Maybe you should mind your own business,” the woman sneered. Continue reading