Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Filing Down Rough Edges

"The rough edges of society are often in need of filing down."  That is often-used dictum in many appellate rulings involving cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress.  It is more or less the grown-up version of the dictum heard on the playground, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."  So, okay.  But even if they don't hurt, at the very least they have the power to make us grumpy.

Two incidents occurred yesterday that caused me to think about those rough edges. I will begin by stating that I don't see (or rather feel) those scratchy bits too often.   I live in a very small city in the American South and, believe it or not, people are generally pretty polite here.  There is an abundance of Yes, Sir-ing and Yes, Ma'am-ing and pardon me, please and thank you going on.  When my children were very small a friend from "up North" called me on the telephone.  One of the kids answered and when asked if I was in said, "Yes, ma'am.  I'll get her.  Please hold."  She asked me, "HOW do you get them to do that."  The answer was simple.  I didn't.  It was just part of the culture and all their friends talked the same way they did.  They heard it in school, they heard it at play.  I imagine it is different in the big cities of the South, like Atlanta for instance, but where I live we're still pretty quaint.  People may caution an errant youngster to "Be still or I'm going to wear you out."  And a teacher might "fuss" at you for forgetting your homework yet again.  But generally speaking it's all fairly benign.

And so, you see, blatant acts of rudeness - which may go unnoticed elsewhere - stick out like a boil on Jimmy Durante's nose here.

It was time for lunch.  I generally don't go out at lunch but yesterday was a beautiful day and I wanted to be out in it.   I figured I would drive over to the new biggest-ever-in-these-parts-grocery-store and check out their deli.  Along a busy stretch of a 4 lane city street I had to stop for traffic.  There was a red light and about 5 cars ahead of me and then another intersecting street.  Stopping before the intersecting street (so as not to block the traffic coming to the right and left) was not only the polite thing to do, it is also the law.  It is a fairly long light but I was listening to an Agatha Christie audio book so the wait didn't bother me.

There was one car stopped behind me and as I glanced in the rear-view mirror I could see him shouting - I presumed to himself - which seemed strange enough. But then he suddenly threw his car into reverse in a screech of his wheels and whipped into the left hand lane, swung around me, made a right turn into the intersecting street and then into a gas-food-mart parking lot.  When he got out, he turned to my direction and glared hard.  He didn't pull up to the gas pumps, but stomped into the mart instead.  He was probably a young man badly in need of cigarettes and I stood in his way for an agonizing 2 or 3 minutes...which I guess can SEEM like hours when one needs a smoke.  What disappointed me most was that he was a soldier.  A part of me - the careless part - the part that doesn't think about consequences before bamboozling my way into something - said, "Go into that market this minute and tell that boy to behave himself.  Especially when he is a representation of so many people who give so much."  The Mom in me wanted to "wear him out."  But when the light turned green my sensible alter ego stepped on the gas pedal and drove on.  It was a small encounter - well, near encounter - and I don't know why it made such an impression on me, but it did and I thought about it several times that day.   And I'm obviously thinking about it again.

The second incident occurred - again - at a traffic light.  This time I was the third car in a line of about 6.  When the light turned green, the first car went through the intersection but the car in front of me was obviously not paying attention.  You won't hear people honking their horns very much around here.  Folks who are stopped behind you will sit for a few minutes hoping you'll wake up.  After they figured you've fallen asleep or died they will give the horn a little "tap" to shake you out of your lethargy.  Then everyone waves..."Thanks"  or "Sorry"  or "Yeah, well, okay"...and goes about their business.  However yesterday one of the cars behind me laid on the horn, which was more irritating than the slacker stopped in front of me, and was so unusual I wondered if the driver might be from someplace like New York or Massachusetts or New Jersey where such things are common practice.  Naturally, the fellow ahead figured it was me and not only flipped me the bird he rolled down his window to do it and flew his finger-flag thusly for a good half-block.  "It wasn't me," I mouthed.  But he sped off in a fit of pique.

These incidents reminded me of something that happened in London a few years ago.  I took one of those big black cabs to the Chunnel station where one catches the channel train to France.  I wanted to tip the cabbie 20% and was trying to make the dollars to pound/Euro conversion quickly in my head.  I handed him some bills and asked, "I'm sorry, what would 20% of the total be?"  I meant well but I must have offended him because he retorted angrily, "I'm a cab driver not a bleedin' mathematician," and took off...zoom...zoom.  I stood in the street watching him go, stunned silent, wondering what I had said that made him so upset.  It stuck with me and I can see it as clearly as if it happened last week.

So, what is my point?  We move about in society minding our own business, usually with the best of intentions - or at the very least no intentions whatsoever - and every once in a while we get snagged by one of those sharp edges.  Like any sharp edge it feels rough, or scratchy, or it can hurt.  It usually takes us by surprise because if we could predict where they lie in wait we could avoid those prickly parts.  Perhaps that is why we remember them.  They come as a surprise - they shock - they bewilder.  We are left without the chance to explain or defend or question or resolve.

I have no idea what the moral of the story is.  Perhaps it's that no matter where you live or where you go, they are out there.  Hopefully not in abundance.  When confronted with them we must remember the words of the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt:  "Speak softly,but carry a big fat file."