Spinach In Teeth? Skirt In Pantyhose? If You See Something, Say Something!

Yesterday, Hortense Twittered, "I'd just like to give a shout out to everyone I work with for not telling me that I've had bagel crumbs on my face for the past 45 minutes." Fair enough!

Then, also yesterday, after work on a crowded subway, a woman reached over to tap me on the shoulder and say confidentially, "You have mascara under your eyes."

Now. No one wants spinach in her teeth. No one wants her dress tucked into the waistband of her tights. No one wants icing on her cheek. Very few want a long piece of toilet paper stuck to the bottoms of their shoes. I appreciate being alerted to these things. Mascara flaking onto my cheeks? I think I can handle it.

I'm not quite sure what about my 1950s ski sweater, boy's pants and filthy Chucks, or my armful of grocery bags, made her think that I was someone who would be bothered by this. If I'd stopped to think about it, I probably would have assumed that my ten-hour-old drugstore makeup job was a little the worse for wear. After she told me, I thanked her, and felt like I needed to make some pretense of having standards about these things, so I juggled my bags and took a half-hearted swipe at my begrimed cheeks.

Which ladymag is it who does that feature where women go out on the street in some state of humiliation - an enormous fake period stain on white pants, for instance - and see if passers-by come to their aid? ['Glamour'. -Ed.] I've never really understood the rationale behind this particular column, but I guess it's some kind of study of human nature, a mini "what would you do?" The rationale for alerting other people to this sort of thing is, generally, that the embarrassment of telling them is vastly outweighed by that which it will save. You do it because you would want someone to do it for you. And this is one of the many reasons that I've always preferred the somewhat more circumspect Analects interpretation of the Golden Rule, "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you," as it seems a hedge against craziness. Because obviously this woman (whose grooming, it should be said, was flawless) would have wanted someone to tell her if her mascara was flaking - which it wouldn't be.

When you think about it, there's a pretty limited range of things that our society considers so unilaterally unacceptable that we can know with assurance that no one in her right mind could mindfully tolerate. Food on face and teeth. Open zippers. Popped buttons. All of them, really, the tiny things that keep civilization in check - keeping us just a few zipper teeth and buttonhole stitches from a Roussea-esque wildness of gobbled food and naked, Edenic prancing. When we see these things, our sense of personal and societal responsibility is such that we must act, we cannot sit by idly and watch someone commit the sin of obliviousness. By the same token, we'd never tell a bum on the subway that his fly was open - we assume he's opted out of these niceties of civilization, and wouldn't feel the appropriate wave of scalding shame. If we saw an old lady with lipstick on her teeth, we'd hardly make an issue of it; to do so might imply a larger failure. No, in a way it's a measure of respect to remind someone of these things - it implies shared standards, values, understanding. Which is why a communication breakdown like the mascara incident is so weird - was she wrong, or was I? Anyway, I made a stop at Sephora.