We have a somewhat perverse fascination with Randy Cohen’s Ethicist column for the New York Times, wherein the self-appointed arbiter of correct behavior tackles modern conundrums like whether it’s cool to take surreptitious videos of foxy sunbathers. So it was with particular fascination that we read Cohen’s latest, a head-scratcher from a man in Atlanta plagued with the crisis of having a “very attractive wife” with “two cute baby girls” and the deluge of swag to which they are constantly subjected. “She often receives free groceries, free fast food ... and free clothes,” he writes. More vexingly, “Frequently she does not realize she has the gifts (or stolen goods) until she is in the car, driving away.”
I’m sure we can all relate to the moral quandary of getting back to the car, firing up the ignition, and suddenly realizing there’s an extra cashmere sweater and standing rib roast in our shopping bag. Oh the confusion and soul-searching it provokes in a woman! And the gnawing doubts in a man! One day it's all, "Hey, thanks for the extra Munchkins," and the next, your wife is servicing a guy in a paper hat behind the crullers.
As often occurs in the best of the Ethicist columns, Cohen’s job here is to address not the letter writer himself, but the character of the person on whose behalf said person is writing. Cohen has some concerns about the wife of the gentleman in Atlanta -- and her merchant admirers. “If the owner of a store is so smitten with her that he wants to give away the inventory, he has every right to engage in such folly,” he writes, but the lady must not knowingly accept “tributes to her beauty” from store employees wising to “curry favor with an obviously married woman.”
First, we just love watching the spectacle of two men grappling with the sticky wicket of how a woman should act. (Lindsay Robertson has a few brilliant theories about the letter's provenance.) Furthermore, we enjoy living in a 21st century where currying favor with the “obviously married” is suspect. Gratis fries are for the single ladies only, OK? And finally, how big a tool do you have to be to write a letter bitching about the perks your beautiful wife gets?