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Public Is the New Private

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Best of VoxPop: City Life

By Phylliss Mass

Remember Steve Martin's line when people asked if he would mind them smoking? He smiled politely and replied: "Mind if I fart?" Today, though smoking is banned in most public places, no one would bother to ask permission to fart; they would just break wind. That's because private is the new public.

Functions, which used to be performed in homes, beauty salons, doctor's offices and even bathrooms, have now become spectator sports. Nowhere is this more obvious than on public transportation where people are crammed together like galley slaves for the duration of their trip. When I lived in the Bronx and commuted to Manhattan on the subways, people were content to read their newspapers or books in relative silence. Occasionally, I encountered a groper, a loud talker or a nose picker or an annoying straphanger who hung too close to a seated commuter. These days, no matter what form of public transportation I take, someone sitting next to me is either eating something incredibly stinky from a Styrofoam container, putting on makeup, clipping fingernails or jabbering loudly and profanely on a cell phone. The louder the conversation, the more meaningless the topic.

Recently, on a Philadelphia to New York Greyhound, a woman across the aisle removed a large lighted mirror and plucked her eyebrows. She then bathed herself in hand lotion, dry shampooed and brushed her long, highlighted mane, and then lowered her head between her legs and sprayed her hair with half a can of hairspray. Just when I thought it was safe to inhale, she sprayed herself and all those in her general vicinity with several pungent spritzes of cheap cologne. A few months ago on the Philadelphia to New York City Greyhound route, a woman sitting near me whipped out a head of red cabbage the size of a bowling ball and chomped her way up the New Jersey Turnpike. When she finished, she flossed her teeth, brushed them with toothpaste and a cordless electric toothbrush and rinsed her mouth with a sip of bottled water.

When she tossed her used dental floss onto the floor of the bus the woman behind me protested, "Perhaps you should perform your dental hygiene at home," the voice chided. "Maybe you should shut up and mind your own business," the offender retorted. "What's next on your agenda leg waxing, bikini waxing or maybe watching you give birth?" "Whatever," the unfazed offender said, whipping out a bottle of green nail polish to put the final touches on her acrylic monster claws.

As any dentist will atest, flossing removes bacteria and plaque from gums, which can sometimes prove to be infectious. Public flossing, therefore, is a supreme no-no. So does one suffer in silence or risk having one of those unpleasant confrontations? Why can't we keep personal business personal? Sure, it's difficult to juggle time and obligations but I don't want to see someone flossing his or her teeth or tweezing his or her eyebrows, or shaving. Hell, I don't even want to see me performing these necessary functions. I also don't want to sneeze my way through a hazy storm cloud of cheap cologne which recycles itself for the duration of my trip to New York and which causes me to sneeze at every turnpike mile marker. All it takes is a bit of planning, a few minutes before bedtime and a few more in the morning to care for one's personal hygiene in private. Whether the season is hot, cold, dry or wet makes no difference.

One Wednesday I saw a man standing in the Philadelphia bus line at the Port Authority applying Old Spice deodorant to his underarm. Also on that same Greyhound line, a man combed his hair, slicked it down with saliva and then deposited the remnants of his comb on the floor. Midway into the ride to Philadelphia, a woman in the rear of the bus whipped out nail polish remover and began giving herself a manicure. She then proceeded to clip her nails. When finished, she took out a small bowl filled it with bottled water and gave herself a pedicure. What is responsible for this public display of privacy? Is it YouTube, Facebook, and all those mindlessly stupid reality show and gossip magazines? Have all these components conspired to make a public spectacle of our once private moments? Can it be too much to ask that private things remain private? Did I need to witness the guy masturbating in his car at a red light who kept encouraging me to try something tastier than the apple I was eating at the time? Apparently, the answer is yes.

Phylliss Mass lives her private life in Center City.
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