New York Lesson No. 332: Boss

The way strangers address each other in New York, if at all, follows a high degree of variation, depending on the situation — from the carnival-barker lurings of Italian restauranteurs along Mulberry Street to the colorful and often violent invitations from one fender-bent cabbie to another, the nod of a mail carrier to the blank stare of a neighbor.

What passes for polite forms of address in this town varies from community to community. But one constant I have heard among men time and again is the odd honorific “boss.”

It is at once colloquial and coarsely formal. As a term of address it suggests respect, as one stranger respects another, but it is not as stuffy as “sir.” I feel ridiculous and self-conscious when someone my age or older refers to me as sir.

“Boss” is in another class altogether, at least a full step up from “dude,” and not as juvenile as “mister.” It is friendly, like a light jab on the shoulder. It feels comfortable. The odd thing is, unlike “sir,” being addressed as boss does not carry any indication of social superiority.

From the convenience store clerk: “Do you want a straw with that, boss?”

From the guy at the pizza shop: “Eh, boss. What can I do for you?”

From the friendly-looking old man slowly walking across the street, one hand on his cane, the other raised in a shaking fist, while I was searching for a parking spot last night: “Hey, boss! Lights! Put on your fucking lights!”


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