The naked women stopped me cold.
It wasn't simply that their grins were lascivious or their tongues touching. Not even the fact that they seemed to have an inordinate amount of interest in one another's surgically augmented breasts.
No, what stopped me is the fact that I was in an airport at the time. An airport newsstand in Baltimore, to be exact. Had a few minutes to kill and was scanning the magazine rack when I came upon these women, part of several shelves stocked with similar literature. No screen shielded you from it. You simply turned the corner and ... whoa!
What really got me was that this particular magazine was positioned about waist high. At eye level, in other words, for a small child.
So I called the Hudson Group, the company that operates the newsstand in question and, according to its Web site, roughly 200 other airport stores nationwide. I spoke to a representative who asked to remain anonymous but who assured me the company has a policy requiring sexually explicit materials to be obscured from view by a Plexiglas screen. As for whether the Baltimore store violated that policy, well ... she would have to look into it.
You'll forgive me if I don't hold my breath.
Truth to tell, it won't matter much to me if they have some men's magazines locked in a titanium steel vault next time I visit that newsstand. What's important to me is not what, if anything, they do as a result of my call. Rather, it's that there was a time not so long ago when I wouldn't have had to make the call in the first place. Indeed, a time when no newsstand would have required a corporate policy to tell it to keep dirty old men's magazines in a place accessible only to dirty old men. The most junior sales clerk in the place would have known to do this. Would have felt that she owed it to the rest of us, the children most of all.
There's a name for that sense of obligation to the larger society. It's called the social covenant. And ours has seen better days.
Which is bad news for us. Worse for our children. I've always considered the guidance and protection of a society's youngest members an act of enlightened self-interest. In seeing that they were properly socialized, in sheltering their innocence from the rough ways of the world, you helped ensure the health indeed the survival of the society itself.
It was a dynamic and a responsibility that was intuitively understood and honored once upon a time. The men in the barbershop cleaned up their bawdy talk when some man brought his little boy around. The teacher never allowed the students to catch her with a cigarette.
There was a recognition that the public space belonged to all of us. You could do as you wished in private or in controlled places. But you did not appropriate the public space for your own use. You moderated your behavior there. To do otherwise was regarded as an act of disrespect for society and for yourself.
The world has changed a lot since then. To step outside your front door is to see and to hear how much. Vulgarisms on T-shirts, four, seven and 12-letter obscenities booming from car speakers, explicit themes during what television used to call the family hour, porno in the airport newsstand. We seem less compelled to honor the social covenant, make the communal investment, act as if we owe anybody anything.
The other day, I saw a sign. It was written in the dirt of an unwashed truck stuck in traffic ahead of me.
"(Expletive) you," it said.
And yes, that sentiment is as constitutionally protected as the one you're reading now. Nor would I have it any other way.
The question I raise, though, is not about rights, but right. Not about whether you can, but whether you should. It's a question grounded in an understanding of covenant, and a belief that we have obligations to one another. It's an old question.
And you get the sense no one's asking anymore.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.