I’d been trawling the Internet and antique shops for a particular, hard-to-find item over several months when, a few days ago, as has been the case lately, to which I reply, “about fucking time” – I caught a break. A friend of a friend of a friend had one at her shop in East Molesey going at what I thought was a ludicrously cheap price. I called the girl, we met, we bonded over Radiohead, and sealed the deal. Ecstatic, I burst into a longwinded, nonsensical, relentlessly insane thank you that lasted about three minutes. She stared at me quietly for a moment, and then laughed.
“You’re crazy. But you’re a nice guy. You don’t find a lot of crazy people who are equally as nice. I like that.”
Now, “crazy” is a word I’m a little used to and understand wholly, but I probably hear no word more often than “nice.” People are always telling me that. I have an unfortunate habit of over-politeness, saying “thank you” and “please” when it’s entirely unnecessary (and aggressively annoying). You’re too nice. You’re so nice. You, David, are nice. Nice guy, that David.
Now, ignoring that nice originally meant ignorant or foolish – classifications I’d agree with wholeheartedly – I’ve never understood this. Am I a nice guy? I mean, sure, I’m pleasant. I smile a lot, make a bunch of lame jokes, try to act polite and rarely start randomly punching the face of the person with whom I’m speaking, however great the temptation. But does that make me “nice”?
Seems like popular opinion would say yes. At a pub the other day, I ordered my drink with my customary “please” and “thank you.” When I do this, I’m not hoping to brighten the pub landlord’s day. It’s just a habit. It’s a ruse. It’s so I can get by without anyone giving me any grief. It’s so people will think I am conscientious and caring. Often, people attribute it to my roots in the Caribbean, as if there are no rude people in the West Indies.
A girl I really like asked me the other day, without a trace of irony: “You’re such a nice guy! Why are you still single?” (Did I mention she’s very attractive… and ALSO single?). The response that rose to my lips would not have been considered “nice” or polite so instead I made some lame comment that was supposed to be funny, before politely excusing myself and heading to the mens’ room to bash my head repeatedly against the bathroom wall. A real nice guy, that David.
So let me set the record straight: I. Am. Not. Nice. Deep down, once you strip away all the surface bullshit, I’m not all that concerned with other people. I just want them to like me. Me! Me! The way I really am does not matter; what matters is what people see. And they see that I am “nice.” I tell myself that everyone does this, everyone tries to put their best face forward, everyone tries to mask the seedy, nasty, grimy parts that lie beneath. But I think what I do is worse.
Sure enough, the pub trick worked. The girl behind the bar commented the other day on how “nice” I was, and that you didn’t get a lot of guys like me in the pubs she’d worked in. I smiled sheepishly, stammered a bit, head hunched down, my work here done.
I have an old friend in America who called me last week. She told me she was feeling horrible because she felt she’d deserted a little girl. I asked her what she meant.
She explained that because the city of New York – she’d recently moved there from Georgia – was so harsh and fast and angry, it was wearing her down. She felt compelled to do something good, worthy, provide the world with a little bit of light, give something back. She signed up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and she took a seven-year-old girl to museums and cooked for her once a week, because her mother was unable to. Every Saturday afternoon, my friend would head to Brooklyn, pick the girl up and try to make her feel special. But she just started a new job, and she can no longer be there every Saturday. She shows up whenever she can, but her own life has got in the way of the relationship with the child. “I just feel so guilty, so horrible.”
That, friends, is nice. I am not that. I do not give money to charity. I do not help little old ladies across the street (tried that once and she almost attacked me with her handbag). I do give up my seat on the Underground to pregnant women, but only if they make eye contact. I am a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive piece of crap. I am out for myself only. I am, after all, the ultimate Alpha-Male!
But somehow, people keep lumping me in with the warmhearted people, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who understand the world is more than just one self-obsessed person thinking humanity owes him something. Who sees the world through the prism of himself. Whose favourite topic is always me.
What does being nice mean? We’re so busy these days, we don’t have time to actually figure out whether someone is nice or not. So we just use shorthand: If you’re non-confrontational and soft-spoken, that makes you “nice”. If you’re effective at disguising your inherent self-interest in everything you do, you win the prize. You’re the one who means well, the one who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way. The one who writes a blog about poor me, sad little pathetic single guy, doesn’t want any trouble. Whether it’s true or not.
There are people who have known me, past the “please” and “thank you” and “that’s OK”, past all the bullshit, seen the way I really am, the way I can be with those who would deign to try to dig deeper.
And I can assure you… they might have a bit of disagreement with the classification of “nice.” Though I can’t really know for sure. You’ll have to ask them. They don’t talk to me anymore.