Years ago I was at a grocery store with my older son. He’s a much better driver today, but he was only about eight then and he ran the nose of the shopping cart into the heel of another shopper.
No one enjoys that, and the fellow was in his rights to turn and shout “hey!” just as he did. I’ll even grant him the angry “watch it!” that followed, although seeing that the offending driver was just a kid, a better man would have smiled instead.
But he wasn’t done, and he took the opportunity to share some emphatic child-rearing advice with me. I put myself between my boy and the offended shopper as I apologized for the accident, and I began moving us toward another aisle. He shifted from telling me how to raise my son to suggesting all sorts of deficiencies in my own character and ancestry. (If he only knew.) Although others in the store had little choice but to pay him attention, I was ignoring what he said and watching his hands as we moved away. The shopper didn’t appreciate being ignored, so he asked, in an obvious bow to classic movies of the 1940s, if I wanted to step outside. I held my tongue, kept watching his hands, and moved us on.
My decision to act as I did is, I trust, such an obvious one that it doesn’t bear much explaining. Really it boils down to the old schoolyard incantation about the orthopedic limitations of sticks and stones. Nothing particularly interesting there; no lessons to learn.
More interesting by far is to consider these events from the perspective of the lightly bruised, fully inflamed shopper.
I’d put the angry fellow’s age at 60, give or take a year. He was five-feet, six-inches tall and weighed maybe 140 pounds. I can accurately assess his weight because his attire – tank top, Lycra biking shorts and flip-flops – left far less to the imagination than one would wish.* Furthermore, this getup made it obvious – to an anatomically explicit degree no outfit regularly found outside a ballet studio ever could – that he was almost certainly unarmed.
I, in contrast, was some 20 years his junior. I’m over six-feet tall and weighed near to two of him. My clothing that day – cargo slacks and an un-tucked camp shirt – made it impossible for the fellow to know whether I was armed with, just as an example, a 9mm pistol, a spare magazine, a hefty folding knife and pepper spray. I hope it's clear that my point here isn't that I'm some sort of high-speed, low-drag badass. But rather that it was surprising that, given just the facts available to him, this man's default position was to try to engage me in combat.
So, the questions arise: Just exactly what did this diminutive little ball of outrage have in mind? How exactly did he see this turning out? What about the tiny, inadvertent insult he suffered was worth the risk he was taking in acting as he did? Was he so caught up in his own self-generated rage that he couldn’t master himself?
Of course, I confess that I don't know what I don't know, either. There’s a chance he was a secret ninja warrior of the eighth degree. Maybe his ear concealed a tiny CAS radio uplink and he was poised to call in an air strike. Perhaps – despite all the evidence his behavior provided to the contrary – he was the product of decades of Tier One military expertise. Maybe my first step outside with him would have been my last.
But I rather doubt it. I suspect he was just what he appeared to be: a scrawny, aging yuppie with bad impulse control, who led such an insulated life of privilege that the possibility of real violence – any violence, let alone the lethal variety – seemed impossibly remote to him there in that fluorescent oasis of civilized, upscale consumption.** I’d wager he’d made similar threats before, with similar outcomes. Maybe he went home and told his wife another tale about how he told off some fat, middle-class, cowardly asshole at the store.
But he violated one of Robert’s Rules: “Never depend upon the other guy’s better nature. He probably does not have one.” He could safely violate that rule with me because I’m a civilized guy; because my impulse control is as powerful as his is poor; because I didn't assess him as a threat; and, most of all, because he was never the least threat to my child.
But it’s the nature of Robert’s Rules that you ignore them at your peril. The next guy he tries may be more inclined to teach him that by way of an object lesson.
*Although a purely sartorial discussion is beyond the scope of this post, I know there are those who would suggest that this outfit, worn anywhere but while actually riding a bicycle, is sufficient justification for mayhem. I would not argue with them.
** Our scene was set in the Whole Foods Market in Pinecrest which, for those familiar with the place, is all that needs saying.