A lady of a certain age, not unprosperous-looking, walked into a small gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, accompanied by a gentleman and a child, both presumably of certain ages.
That is, this one-room business establishment called itself a gallery, although the wares were not works of art but pieces of odd jewelry and other bold decorative items. In recent years, Miss Manners has been to several department stores that displayed paintings, and so many museum exhibits of clothing that she does not pretend to understand anymore what belongs where.
The item that had attracted the lady was a sculptured silver belt buckle, and she requested and was granted permission to try it on. One might imagine that such an item was not a matter of necessity, but nevertheless, she held a lengthy conversation with the gentleman and the child, speculating on how the buckle would go with various skirts they were assumed to know that she possessed, and soliciting their opinions about the effect it produced when held at her waist.
Although they gamely took part in this discussion, the gentleman soon inquired pointedly whether his credit card would be accepted for payment, and the child contributed by wandering off to identify items that might enhance her own wardrobe.
One can hardly blame the saleswoman, or perhaps art dealer is the correct term, for attempting to urge such goings-on to their natural conclusion. She volunteered that the buckle looked wonderful, represented the height of fashion, would go with everything and so on.
But then her eyes sparkled with special inspiration. From across the room, where she sat doing paperwork, she called out, "It's a terrific conversation piece. You'll meet lots of people."
"I don't want to meet people," said the lady.
Well, you have to deal with all sorts if you keep a shop -- whoops, gallery -- and the saleswoman refused to be discouraged.
"I mean you'll meet people when you travel," she said.
The reply was equally good-natured, but prompt: "Especially when I travel, I don't want to meet people."
At this point, one might think that the saleswoman might be daunted, if not at the remark of the potential customer, then at the knowing chuckle it produced from the gentleman and child, who perhaps knew her tastes and habits. However, the saleswoman put down her paperwork and persisted with new vigor and the obvious intention of clearing things up.
"You don't understand," she announced. "I mean you'll meet fascinating men. Men will come up to you and ask about your belt buckle."
There was no smart reply to that. The lady and the gentleman exchanged stares, and the child stared at them both.
Indeed, we do have here quite a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding about the mores of our society. Have we really gotten to the point of believing that every lady must be receptive to advances from at least some strangers?
We can presume that the saleswoman did not mean to insult the lady and was therefore not insinuating that she was a prostitute or even particularly loose in her morals. That is not the way you sell belt buckles, or works of art, for that matter.
We can also presume that a gentleman who is supposed to know what all a lady's skirts look like and who is prepared to pay for her purchases is likely to be her husband, and that if they are accompanied by a child, it is even possible that they are a family. In any case -- obviously spoken-for or not, escorted or not -- a lady is presumed respectable unless proven otherwise.
Now, the old rule is that a lady never knew anyone to whom she had not been properly introduced. But we are a friendly, easygoing people and have never found harm in passing the time of day with strangers when thrown together in such apparently safe circumstances as traveling conveyances.
However, it was supposed to be voluntary, and Miss Manners defends the choice of the lady and many people like her who prefer to sleep, read or think when they travel. They should know there is no obligation to chatter -- one need only politely decline, either by minimal responses or, if necessary, by saying, "Excuse me, I don't really feel like talking now."
But have we really come to the point of believing that there is no standard at all against ladies picking up strange gentlemen? Miss Manners is not saying such a standard isn't violated for any number of reasons, including the sudden onslaught of unexpected true love, which will then run an honorable course -- she is asking whether people acknowledge it exists.
Or does everyone believe now that the country is one big singles bar, even for those who are not single?
Q. Would you be so kind as to explain the proper format for writing to a pope, as well as his address? We are planning on writing to Pope John Paul II and don't wish to insult His Holiness.
Being devout Catholics, we would like to express our love for him. He has been a source of love and inspiration for us and our children for years.
A. Miss Manners does not normally put people in touch with one another, but it just so happens that she does know the pope's address.
The envelope should read:
His Holiness --
In the salutation, the pope is addressed as "Your Holiness" or "Most Holy Father." Roman Catholics close the letter: "I have the honor to be Your Holiness' most devoted and obedient child." (Those who are not Roman Catholics substitute the word "servant" for "child"; a person in regular correspondence would substitute the word "remain" for "be.")
Miss Manners would not go so far as to say you would have been insulting the pope to get it wrong, but she does think it a compliment to him that you bothered to get it right.
Q. If a married couple is blessed with a multiple birth, but shortly thereafter one of the children dies, how should one acknowledge the events?
A. A simple message of congratulations seems too oblivious, while a sympathy card seems lacking. Realizing that one must write his own reponse, what does one properly say?
Indeed one must, as one should for any difficult situation. Miss Manners does not believe that any printed card adequately expresses sympathy; the idea that there could be one for such an occasion as this, a sort of win-some-lose-some message, horrifies her.
Write a letter in which you first offer your congratulations on the birth of the surviving children. Then, in a separate paragraph, recognize the loss with a few words expressing your sympathy.
The important thing is not to attempt to connect the two emotions. The parents will know only too well that it is possible to feel both joy and grief at the same time, without the death's spoiling their pleasure in their living children, or their mourning for the one being lessened by the fact that other children survived.