By Gustaf Berger
Special to the Gazette
Most mornings, I sit in front of Caffe Nero on Centre Street in the filtered shade of a honeylocust tree, observing, commenting on, and sometimes charting idiosyncratic behaviors. Do you: Use an umbrella when it’s raining? Wear sneakers with a business suit? Let your dog piss on the locust tree? – Thanks a lot!
One morning, a woman flipped open the mailbox in front of the cafe, dropped a letter in, let it bang shut, and immediately opened it to see if the letter went down. As soon as the tray shut, she opened it again and then once more. She scurried up the sidewalk in the opposite direction before I had the chance to ask her why. After that, I began keeping track. Many peeked a second time to make sure the big blue box had swallowed their offering. I asked some why they checked. Most admitted (sometimes sheepishly) that no letter had ever gotten stuck.
Before the internet, especially in December, mailboxes could fill up. I remember one time – 50 years ago! – when the tray wouldn’t close all the way because the box was full. But those times are long gone.
So why do we, often too young to remember stuffed mailboxes, check to be sure? “OCD,” suggested one professor. If so, there’s an awful lot of it among us. Do you “double-dip”? (35 percent of those I observed do.)
Scared of What?
When I asked what animals people were most afraid of, the results were not surprising and, as in many things emotional, bore little in common with reality as measured by deaths inflicted by animals. Which animals elevate your fears?
According to a 2018 study in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, approximately 200 people die from animal attacks in the US each year. That number excludes vectors such as mosquitos, which carry diseases rather than killing directly.
Leading the list of most feared was snakes, cited by 40 percent of respondents. In actuality, snakes kill only 3 percent of people killed by animals. Next most mentioned were wild animals (including sharks) at 30 percent versus 3 percent actual. Spiders, 17 percent versus 4 percent.
On the other hand. the most dangerous animals were barely mentioned. Farm animals, including horses, are responsible for 36 percent of deaths. No one taking this survey mentioned any of these animals. Bees, wasps, and hornets kill 30 percent. Only 2 percent listed them. Domestic dogs, 17 percent actual versus 6 percent. Most people killed by dogs are under five years old.
You’re in a small public restroom. There’s no toilet paper on the holder, but there is a roll on the toilet back. Do you place that roll into the holder? There was a significant gender gap in the answer: 55 percent of men and 80 percent of women answered yes to changing toilet paper.
Surveys are tricky. The shape of the question and how and where it’s asked can influence one’s answer. For this survey, I asked face to face, mostly at the café. I suspect that some people who have never changed a roll answered yes. I’ve seen too many empty fixtures with loose rolls on a nearby shelf.
Love at First Sight?
Where or how did you meet your partner? I must have curdled the milk in the lattes of 100 blind dates before I found my sweetheart. Moving here 23 years ago to take advantage of a business opportunity, and being single and known by no one, I used the personal ads in the Boston Globe to meet my ideal woman – “You: female, alive.”
A few of the more interesting responses included: Kindergarten, went steady in the seventh grade, married 53 years. Snow skiing club in Miami, FL. Twelve-step meeting – it didn’t last long. Flea market. Online roleplaying game. Partner’s intern. Deckhand on father’s ferry line in mid-60s and reconnected 35 years later. TV reporter interviewed man she later married.
Of all the responses, the following were the most common: School / college (20 percent) Work (18) Friend intro / blind date (16) Bar / restaurant (8) Party (6) Church (4)
Going – Going – Not Quite Gone.
TV: 17 percent don’t have one. 10 percent have four or more.
Radio: 45 percent don’t have one at home.
Wrist Watch: 60 percent don’t wear one.
For each “pocket survey” above, I questioned between 100 and 200 people. I survey because I’m curious about many things I can’t find out with a Google search. Even if I could, it’s more fun observing and charting behaviors we may not notice in ourselves. It’s also engaging to talk with neighbors in person to find out more about who we are here in JP.
My next survey question: Has the current political situation divided your family? If so, how? All replies kept confidential. E-mail me at [email protected]
Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”