Not long ago, I sat in my car at an intersection with my 6-year-old son in the back seat, waiting for the light to change. As soon as it turned green, I started to go but quickly had to brake because a pickup truck with a trailer in the oncoming lane made a left turn in front of me. I glared at the driver as he passed. He looked back and smiled.
“Selfish,” I said, shaking my head. “He had no right to do that.”
“Do what?” my son said.
“The people going straight are supposed to go first. If you want to take a left, you wait,” I said. “He was being selfish.”
For selfish people, I have only contempt. For me, it extends to those who walk slowly because they’re texting or stop in a doorway to talk with someone or walk three-across on the boardwalk so I can barely fit by. And it includes those who drive slowly in the left lane or speak loudly in a movie theater or waiting room.
Sometimes I try to right these wrongs. I once asked a woman in an elevator to get off her cellphone because we were in such a small space. She let out an audible gasp and told her friend on the phone, in horror, that a woman in the elevator had asked her to get off her phone. Stunned, I let out an audible gasp. If our ride were any longer, we might have continued to trade alternating gasps, as each found the other’s behavior more and more incredulous.
I’ve read enough self-help books to know my approach isn’t healthy. Getting angry all the time can spike your blood pressure, cause heart problems, increase anxiety and generally make you sick. It can also lead to confrontations. No one likes to be told how to act, even when in the wrong. I know that my anger also often reflects poorly on me and that I need to address it.
But jeez, the world is such a crowded place, and everything would be a lot easier if people simply followed the rules, such as picking up their dog’s poop so I don’t step in it, or putting the hammer back in the tool box, dear husband, so it’s there when I go to use it. Unfortunately, the world isn’t like that, and so I know I need a better approach.
But intolerance and anger are hard to stop. Part of it is genetics or perhaps family-learned behavior. Like me, my father had contempt for people who would stop and linger at the bottom of an escalator or just outside an elevator door. (Though he also hated men who drove in hats, and I don’t seem to have inherited that one.)
I don’t know why selfish or “thoughtless” behavior drives me batty. A friend once opined that I must be taking people’s behavior personally. If the woman in the elevator really considered me, for instance, she would not have continued to talk on her cellphone. I wasn’t sure I bought that explanation.
All this was percolating in my mind when I went for a run one day in Central Park in New York City. As I was leaving the park, I had to squeeze through a narrow space where a man was doing a pre-run stretch as three running mates — a man and two women — waited nearby. The stretcher was a buff man; he had his back to me as he twisted back and forth, his arms akimbo.
As I drew near, he seemed to stop, leaving me a gap on the path to go through, but because I was behind him, I knew he could start swinging his arms again at any moment. So as I passed through the gantlet, I said, “Excuse me,” to make sure he would know I was there. Even with my headphones on, I could hear the man’s three running mates say, “Whoa!” like a Greek chorus expressing grave disbelief. A lot of people in that situation might have kept running. Not me. I have a conflicted relationship with confrontation: I hate it, yet I seem to invite it. I stopped in my tracks, turned around and said, “What do you mean, ‘Whoa!’ Do you know why I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ” I asked the chorus.
“It’s cool, it’s cool,” said the stretching man, as the other man and the two women, who looked as if they’d taken a spin class before arriving for their run, stood next to him visibly smirking.
“I said it because — ”
“It’s cool,” the man said.
“I’m trying to explain . . . ”
“Look, it’s fine. But if you feel the need to explain yourself, go right ahead.”
“I do.” And I began to tell him about the small space and the gantlet and the sharp spinning elbows that I feared would clock me in the head. Before I could get it all out, he interrupted again to say, “It’s cool.”
“You keep saying, ‘It’s cool,’ and clearly it’s not,” I said. “I’m just saying that my, ‘Excuse me,’ did not warrant a ‘Whoa!’ ”
The other man chimed in, saying, “Look, it was aggressive. There are four people here, and we all had the same reaction.”
Perhaps I had said “excuse me” more loudly than I’d intended, on account of my earphones and my fear of being clocked in the head, but I had no ill intent. It was self preservation. Yet as I looked at all their faces, pleading my case to a group of strangers, as if I were on trial, I saw they were unmoved. They’d judged me before even hearing my argument — something I do all day long with each infraction I see. Except I was on the other side of it. And suddenly I saw that things were not always as they appear.
Maybe people stop at the bottom of an escalator blocking me or just inside a doorway to a store because they bumped into a long-lost friend and lose sight of where they’re standing. And the women on the cellphone in the elevator. Perhaps she had just broken up with a boyfriend or was fired and was so involved in telling someone about it, she failed to notice she had walked into a tight space.
Maybe my friend was right and that I do take these random acts personally when they have nothing to do with me.
I know when I’m angry about being stuck behind a slow driver in the left lane and finally do pass them, I glance to see who brought my life to a grinding halt. It’s almost always someone who is clasping the steering wheel a little too hard, staring straight ahead, a glazed, or confused, look on their face, like they’re doing all they can to just get by. And usually my anger dissolves instantly.
After my run, I left the park to meet some friends for breakfast, a little shaken by what happened with the joggers but also resolved to cut people some slack for their indiscretions. After all, you never really know why people do what they do.
Besides, what could be so wrong about driving with a hat on?