Seagulls Don't Have No Etiquette

Nowadays, we have Miss Manners to set us right about etiquette. She's been doing it for nearly 40 years and I have long enjoyed her newspaper columns for her wit.

Her predecessor-indeed, the predecessor of all who have guided us along the straight and narrow primrose path of propriety (take that, Spiro Agnew and William Safire!)-was Emily Post.

It seems to me that, much as I enjoy her snarkiness, Miss Manners focuses more on interpersonal relations, often after the fact, than on the letter of etiquette law. I imagine a typical letter to Miss Manners might go something like this: "I sat across from a very attractive young woman on the crosstown bus last week and I noticed she had spinach between her teeth. I didn't tell her because I was afraid she would think it was only a pickup line, but now I wonder if I did the right thing. What should I have done?"

Emily Post, on the other hand, was always there to answer practical questions in advance to help people avoid social embarrassment. She answered thorny questions from her readers, such as "Is it proper etiquette to use water from the finger bowl to cool my demitasse?" and "I am writing a letter to Pope Francis. Is the proper salutation 'Dear Pope' or should I use the less formal 'Dear Frank'?"

In short, Miss Manners offers perhaps a couple minutes of amusement, but asking for and listening to Emily Post's advice could actually save some time and trouble, as the following story will show.

I wasn't a witness to these events, but I heard the story from three of the key participants and their accounts differed only in minor details, so I'm sure that this telling is very close to the truth.

New Bedford used to have an annual scallop festival, which was held under a tent on Pope's Island, and the Standard-Times put out a special tabloid supplement in connection with the festival. Like all such supplements, it was designed primarily to bring in some extra advertising money, but I edited many similar tabloids later and I can testify that we made a real effort to get some good, interesting, readable editorial matter into them.

The two major players in this story were both named Milt. Before he founded Southeastern Advertising Agency, Milt George was the newspaper's advertising manager. As most of you probably knew, I worked with Milt at SEA for many years after I left the Standard-Times. Milt Silvia was the newspaper's chief photographer and a very good one. I worked with him on many photo stories, probably 20 or 30 a year over a period of nine years.

A couple of years before I joined the Standard-Times staff, the two Milts had a meeting with Dick Early, the executive editor, to discuss the cover photo for the annual scallop festival tabloid. They hit upon the idea of setting up a photo of a scallop dinner on a table at the end of Fisherman's Wharf, aka Pier 3, with scallopers in the background.

Milt George gathered the props from various downtown stores, who agreed to loan him items in exchange for having their names mentioned. He got a nice-looking table and chair, a tablecloth and napkin, some attractive china and silverware, and a goblet, and he brought all of the stuff down to Pier 3 in a circulation department van. After he had set everything up, Milt Silvia joined him.

There was one last step: Milt George had to pick up the scallop dinner itself at Lupo's. When he brought it back, he discovered that they hadn't accounted for something.


The moment the scallops touched the plate, the seagulls descended. Milt and Milt both yelled and jumped and flailed away with their arms, but the gulls paid no attention and within a couple of minutes the scallop dinner was gone.

Milt S. sat in the chair while Milt G. went back to Lupo's to use the phone. He called the Standard-Times to get reinforcements. After waiting a few minutes, he got a new scallop dinner and arrived at Pier 3 just as the editorial staff car pulled up, driven by a young reporter and carrying two copy boys. And a small pile of newspapers.

Each of the three recruits armed himself with two rolled-up newspapers, one in each hand, and Milt G. also carried two of them, along with the scallop dinner. As he filled the plate with food, Milt Silvia peered through his viewfinder and the other three began waving their newspapers around wildly to keep the seagulls from having another feast. Milt George soon joined them.

So now we have the table setting, the scallop dinner, the boats in the background, and four people frantically protecting the food from the onslaught of gulls while Milt Silvia tries to get what amounts to a still-life photo, devoid of seagulls, rolled-up newspapers, and occasional human bits (none of them naughty).

And this was before the press photographer's weapon of choice was a 35-millimeter camera. Milt S. was using the standard newspaper issue Speed Graphic, which took a single 4x5 piece of film. After each exposure, the film had to be removed very carefully (and slowly), using a dark slide and a film holder. Then a new piece of film was inserted, again using a dark slide and film holder, before the next exposure.

Eventually, Milt Silvia announced that he thought he had at least a couple of usable pictures. The arm-weary seagull beaters piled back into the staff car, the rapacious seagulls finally got their meal, Milt S. packed up his gear to get back to the Standard-Times to develop his film, and Milt George was left with the spoils.

He packed everything into the circulation van and went to Lupo's for one last favor: getting the plate washed and dried. Then he returned the table, chair, tablecloth, etc., to the stores from which he'd borrowed them.

By the time he got back to the office, the photos had been developed. They picked the one they thought was best and brought it to Dick Early.

Dick barely glanced at the photo before pronouncing it good. Milt and Milt beamed happy smiles.

But only for a moment, because Dick Early then said, "Of course, you have to shoot it again."

"Why do we have to shoot it again?" Milt George demanded.

Dick put the photograph on the desk and turned it around so the Milts could see it clearly. He tapped the table setting with his index finger.

"Fork goes on the left and the knife and spoon on the right," he said.

Which brings me back to my point: Emily Post could have saved a lot of time and trouble.