The Umbrella Man

New Yorker Caption Contest Winners, Explained

The caption above, like so many Caption Contest winners, initially reads as painfully pat. Right, PBS doesn’t get enough money from Congress to cover its operating costs, so it must shamelessly panhandle at regular intervals. And, during these pledge drives, it must offer tokens of appreciation, ones that might appeal to its erudite urban audience — that is, they must be semidisposable and commuting-adjacent. Public radio has guessed its listeners read, so it offers tote bags; public television has guessed its core audience does not live in the Sun Belt, so it also offers umbrellas. At a glance, the joke Lynda Altman of Chestnut Hill, Mass. seems to make here is: PBS be givin’ away umbrellas! But, imagine if they did so on a sliding scale!?

But surely a joke so simple, and so reliant on referencing shared yuppie enthusiasms, wouldn’t win. There’s simply no way it would be selected by Bob Mankoff and his legion of helpers, then voted to the top by the attorneys that make up the bulk of The New Yorker’s readership. No, to truly grasp Altman’s joke, we must dig deeper — we must start by considering the umbrella.

Umbrellas are deceptively compact things that expand to great size. This is true in the metaphorical sense, too. In New York especially, umbrellas are a fascinating lens through which to examine how we interact with the city, and with one another. Sometimes they change us for the better — name another object you’d leave unattended at a bar simply because there’s a bucket for them near the door — but it’s much more common that they change us for the worse.

A common myth about New Yorkers, bolstered by junk science, is that we walk fast. Literally anyone under the age of sixty-five can tell you that this is not true anymore, if it ever was. I know this because I was taught to speed walk by a hard-assed woman from Moravia at a diner-themed diner in downtown San Francisco, which at the time was run by an ex-Marine who had spent some time as a military-academy instructor, and he ran the restaurant like it was Camp Pendleton. He’d hired me on the recommendation of a friend, but mainly because he heard I was a student at UC San Diego. Not only was he born and raised in San Diego, he had studied at the Harvard of North County, too. I was hired immediately.

The staff at the place was so remarkably diverse that I used to joke that our boss was a closet Taylorist, and didn’t want his workers talking to one another. Two of the waitresses were from Mongolia, and two from Kazakhstan; a few were from the Phillipines. We had an affable Bulgarian night manager, the Czech woman who taught me how to walk, a busboy who would interact with me only to say, “Mucha mota, guey?” One guy who worked in the kitchen had such feline features everyone called him Tigre, and there was this front-of-house guy whose face was perpetually drenched in sweat who was from a semi-autonomous and possibly Muslim part of southern Russia. I know it wasn’t Chechnya, but I will never know more than that because I could never understand what the hell he was saying when he told me its name. He was demoted through every single job in the restaurant — waiter, soda jerk, busboy — until he was eventually fired.

We wore paper hats. Name tags, too. It was that sort of place. There was already a Willy working there — he got me the job — so my manager made me a name tag that read “UCSD.” The name stuck; I was one of few native San Franciscans working there, but everyone on staff called me “UCSD” or “San Diego.” For customers, this was a bit confusing. After all, the name recognition of the third-best UC school is somewhat low and just about every other waiter’s name was similarly foreign-sounding, or otherwise improbable. So diners would often flag me down, see my name tag, and take it at face value. Their eyes would narrow as they scrutinized this dumb piece of plastic and gave it their best: “Um, Ucksid?” Things would only get worse from there, as I’d have to explain that, in fact, my name is Willy (which is already sort of improbable in its own way), and my boss just forces me to wear this name tag because I attend the third-best UC school, because he did, too. (I spared them the grim joke about my future that occurred to me every time I explained the name tag.)

Sections were huge: I usually had half of the 24-seat counter plus a row of seven two-tops, and it was often totally full. Every moment spent explaining that your name hasn’t been poorly transliterated from Cyrillic is time not spent doing something else that needed doing. Then, each of these incomplete tasks becomes more urgent, and getting them done prevents you from attack the next set, and all of a sudden, you’re just a marble in a Plinko board — your destination inevitable, but your path torturous and impeded by arbitrary, binary whims. The only way you could really mount a defense against the encroaching chaos was to walk as fast as possible at all times. My first week on the job, my Czech trainer rode my heels through the restaurant during the slow hours calling out steps like a coxswain: “Step! Step! Step! Step!” I went home with blisters on my feet, and thought the whole thing was ridiculous — until I worked my first shift, on the Saturday of Pride weekend.

Commuting in New York is somewhat similar, especially when you’re coming from the outer boroughs. Space fans out into a multidimensional tesseract. You wait on the part of your subway platform that will place you on a car that, twenty minutes later, will be closest to the stairwell that will take you to your connecting train; there, you’ll fight with everyone else who planned ahead similarly to get to the part of the platform that will put you on a subway car that will come to a stop closest to your office. Each move you make at one platform affects you at the next; time spent waiting for one train is time spent missing another. At every moment on this journey, a near-infinite number of possible future commutes exist in a quantum state, until your decisions and the decisions of others around you snap one into certitude. Again, the only way you can improve your odds is to walk as fast as possible.

The problem, as it is so often, is other people. New Yorkers are absolutely awful at sharing a city as dense as New York. The myth is that New Yorkers are rude, and maybe they used to be, but the truth these days is that they just sort of suck. They don’t know which side of the escalator they’re supposed to stand on, and, for some reason they often stop walking once they reach the fifth-to-last step. They block subway doors, they put their bags on empty seats, they manspread on crowded trains.

Young transplants in particular carry on asinine conversations at volumes that can only be explained by a belief somewhere, deep within them, that nearby straphangers might actually find their dumb bullshit somewhat interesting. They leave the sounds on while they play mind-meltingly stupid video games, and they don’t fall in line in narrow passageways. Waiters like to say that everyone should work service so they know how to behave in restaurants, but I don’t believe that. Everyone should work at a restaurant for a week so they learn two things: no matter how funny or intriguing a conversation may seem while you’re having it, it is loathsome to whoever has to overhear it; and, much more importantly, you take up space.

When it rains, you take up even more space. And yet New Yorkers seem inexplicably unaware of this, too. Short New Yorkers wield six-foot-wide golf umbrellas like they might as well be carrying Moses’s staff. But God is nowhere to be found for them, just more New Yorkers with umbrellas — many of them walking under awnings, like savages, few of them raising or lowering their umbrellas to accommodate passersby. Frankly, I’m shocked one of these animals hasn’t taken out an eye.

What an umbrella tests, more than anything else, is an individual’s ability to deal with scarce resources while participating in a free society. How do you weigh your self-interest against the self-interest of so many others? Can your needs be met without depriving others of theirs? And, do you try to strike this balance at all? Or do you bring a motherfucking golf umbrella to Midtown?

At least when it comes to umbrellas, sidewalk space is the only resource in question. But behavior of this sort is a plague on contemporary American society, which is lousy with large-umbrella havers, both literal and not. The Koch brothers are perhaps the best example; you suspect there is almost no one they’d be unwilling to steamroll so long as it protects their business interests. The Kochs are known for liking their privacy, so they go about doing this differently from other plutocrats. Rupert Murdoch bought newspapers; David Koch donated to PBS affiliates. In fact, he donated so much to WNET (New York’s affiliate) and WGBH (Boston’s affiliate — i.e., Lynda Altman’s home station) that, for a time, he was on the board of both.

His relationship with PBS became problematic after WNET aired “Park Avenue,” an Alex Gibney documentary about income inequality in New York. The film included the incredible reveal that Koch, who lives at 740 Park Avenue, tips his doorman only $50 at Christmas. Koch had been dangling a seven-figure donation over WNET’s head and rescinded it after the documentary aired (but not before the station’s director did a lot of rather untoward mollifying in private). While this was happening, PBS was in the process of acquiring a documentary called “Citizen Koch,” about the fallout from the Citizens United decision, with some focus on the Koch brothers. When the filmmakers did not back down to pressure from PBS to pull back on their Koch angle, and perhaps change the name of the film, the deal fell apart. Koch resigned from the board of WNET after the episode; his name no longer appears on WGBH’s Board of Trustees page either.

I know all of this because I read Jane Mayer’s excellent reporting on it in The New Yorker — and maybe Lynda Altman did, too. Which brings us back, finally, to the cartoon. Might it not envision an alternate reality, one wherein David Koch purchased himself further protection from the scrutiny of the media by donating even more to PBS? A neat visualization of how the superrich can now use the fruits of their wealth to protect the fruits of their wealth in perpetuity, with the only casualty being our entire civil society? A rendering of the fear that our nation’s once-robust institutions have been captured entirely by the wealthy few and their familiars? The sickening feeling that there’s probably no way to ever undo what’s already been done?

Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a joke about how PBS gives away umbrellas.

Willy Staley prefers Shitty New Yorker Cartoon Captions.