miniStories: “Umbrella Etiquette” by Sarah Gunther

"Umbrella Etiquette," a winning summer 2008 miniStories short offering a revealing, sideways look behind the codes of everyday rituals, was written by Sarah Gunther

1miniStories winner, Sarah Gunther
2miniStories: summer 2008

Umbrella Etiquette

I remember it clearly. The day itself was cloudy and rainy, and there was a sea of umbrellas filling the sidewalks of this old Irish city. Most were black and slick with what had been the third day in a row of rain since we’d arrived those same three days before.

Having just left Trinity College I began to just gaze at the city. After being so intently and intensely focused on manuscripts written on calfskin and journeys on marble stairs worn curved over the centuries by brilliant scholars, it felt good just to open my vision and look at nothing in particular.

As often happens, this is when I see a realness and depth to a place that goes far beyond things marked by velvet ropes signifying items deemed “worthy of seeing.” It is when I see a thing often referred to as real life, that which is often far more amazing than the cordoned spectacles.

As my unfocused eyes roved over the streets, I began to notice the hundreds of umbrellas pouring over the edges of the walks. Almost every person was covered by one, and it was lunchtime, which left the streets filled with people. The Dubliners seemed to be entirely nonplussed by the rain that had dampened even this driest of Irish months, and they were out!

My marvel and awe began as I noticed an almost choreographed system in place. With all of these thousands of people, each with their own umbrella, I watched what looked like a silent player piano at work. One umbrella would go up and another would go down as people would meet and pass on cobbled walks. There were no collisions, no snagging of umbrella edges, no deviation of path, and no obvious cues that I could see to inform the pedestrians who was to raise their umbrella and who was to lower their own.

I looked for secret winks, small gestures of hand, differences in height, or a deferment to one of the sexes by the other, and I saw nothing, no give away what so ever! Perhaps there was a previously determined and intact agreement to which I am not privy, despite my Irish roots.

Having just received my voter’s registration card before leaving home informing me where I could cast my ballot in my new neighborhood, I imagined these citizens receiving a blue or an otherwise colored card in the post telling them if they were an up or a down on rainy days.

To this day I have determined nothing, found no clue, received no anonymous hints and have not been admitted to any secret umbrella etiquette societies. This was admittedly clear on the day my past experience was exhumed as I and another Minneapolitan were stalled in our passing on an empty sidewalk, each of us carrying an umbrella with no plan in sight on how we were going to continue on our intended ways.

About the author: Sarah E. Gunther has her Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Minnesota. She has been involved in various creative careers and endeavors throughout her life. A voracious reader, after many years of consuming the written words of others, they have just recently begun to pour out of her, scrambled and rearranged.