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Spitting in Public Is Really Not Okay

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What makes people think spitting in public is okay? From Chinatown to Midtown, from Bushwick to Bayside, Gothamites openly expel their esophageal waters with impunity. It's gross. And, unlike other now hopelessly ingrained NYC rudeness's -- not letting people off the subway before getting on or halting the flow pedestrian traffic to selfishly inventory an iPhone -- spitting in public is illegal. Yet why is it the one quality of life offense that is never enforced? Why unlike other public disposals of bodily fluids -- defecation, urination -- has expectoration been granted social acceptance?

Is spitting somehow cool? I know kids imitate baseballs players who dribble saliva in a perpetual, effortless, un-self-conscious style. Then there's the finesse spitter, who can spritz an emission between his teeth while cutely tweeting a spray bottle noise. And who can not admire the manly deep throated reach-back hawking that presages itself with an audible warning that sounds like the searching between radio stations static, progresses with a circling up of the lips as if about to blow a smoke ring and ends with an explosive firing out of a saliva-mucous bullet, sometimes aimed indiscriminately and other times with marksmen-like precision. In all three instances I am repulsed.

Spitting, didn't you know, is a health hazard; especially in hot weather when our primarily concrete City becomes a gigantic kiln that multiplies the harmful human mists of contagion. That's why NYC has had an anti-spitting ordinance on the books since 1886. Inexplicably, the law has always been ignored. A 1996 New York Times article celebrating the law's 100th anniversary noted "an eight-year veteran of the New York Police Department's Transit Bureau who has never issued a $25 summons for spitting. And no judge in recent memory has imposed the maximum 10-day jail sentence."

Hong Kong (2003) and London (2009) recently waged high-profile anti-spitting campaigns. Beijing went on an anti-spitting crusade in preparation for their 2008 Summer Olympics.* New York is behind the curve on this. (Query: Did NYC's rampant spitting cost us the 2012 Olympic bid?)

Fifteen years since the '96 Times 100th anniversary piece, the enforcement concerns of other so-called quality of life crimes -- noise, smoking, graffiti, jaywalking, parking tickets -- have been the stuff of legend. Heck, these days if you forget your alternative side of the street parking for five minutes, you not only get a hefty ticket but you're also slapped with the public humiliation of a practically irremovable fluorescent green window sticker.

But humiliation changes behavior. So, let's live the solution. Forget the fine. Forget the jail time. I propose a fluorescent muzzle be attached to offending public spitters, forcing them to gurgle in the unwanted sputum they so sought to discard on the rest of us.

Too harsh? Maybe so. I just wish their would be more of a concerted community and governmental effort to, as H.A.C. famously wrote in a 1901 NY Times letter to the editor entitled "Spitting Nuisance," "route and overwhelm and finally exterminate the public spitter."

*(In so doing, China revived a 1950's anti-spitting government commercial. See YouTube for a hilarious video depicting two children berating their "disgusting" expectorating grandfather.)