November Men's Room column
I really should’ve learned my lesson when I was fifteen.
Paul and I were walking to work when a carload of girls passed yelling garden-variety obscenities. Our clever retort involved PG-13 hand gestures. Then we stepped into a store for a soda.
When we emerged, the car was idling outside. A lanky dude with a mullet hopped out, voiced his displeasure at how “rude” we’d been to his “girlfriends,” and demanded an apology. But Paul and I weren’t prepared to grant this request, so the guy yanked a billy club from his back pocket.
Two-on-one. Paul and I could take him for sure. We had, it turned out, grossly overestimated our pugilistic prowess. Mullet dude made short work of us. A quick whack to my head, a sharp crack to Paul’s shin, and mullet dude and his girls peeled out in a cloud of laughter. Other than bruised egos, we were fine, but the lesson was clear: Don’t mess with strangers.
I followed this rule for decades, but recently my frustration with strangers seeps out in ways both potentially dangerous and embarrassingly juvenile.
While waiting for a parking spot at an area beach, a car zipped past the line and snaked a vacated spot. I floored it and idled behind the big jerk’s car. I’d caught a glimpse of Big Jerk. Big Jerk was big. Real big. Big Jerk was a decade my junior. Finally, my surfing buddy asked if I really wanted to get shot over a parking space. I decided I didn’t, found another spot, and went to pay for parking. Guess who was at the kiosk.
“You can go ahead,” Big Jerk said.
“Oooooh. Now, I can go ahead?” I mocked. Big Jerk looked confused.
“You cut in line,” I scolded.
Big Jerk’s face fell. “Oh, man, I’m sorry. It’s my first time here. I dropped my wife and kids then came back to park.”
Big Jerk wasn’t a jerk after all. Just a dutiful husband. My anger evaporated. If anyone was Big Jerk, it was I. As my buddy and I surfed, I vowed to be more patient with strangers.
But not five minutes after we pulled out of the lot, a seventyish man flashed me a dirty look. I crammed on the brakes.
“What’s that?!” I called.
“You know how fast you were going?” he asked.
“You tell me,” I demanded, staring darts into the old man’s eyes.
The guy’s poor wife looked nervous. She called to him. Finally, he sighed and walked away.
“That’s what I thought,” I said, looking for a fist bump from my buddy. Instead, I got a look that asked, “Who the hell are you?”
Good question. I’m a middle-aged man. A teacher. A guy my colleagues praise for being a calm presence. And here I was intimidating senior citizens.
They say anger masks the more tender emotions: sadness, fear, grief. And these days, when there’s more than enough of all three to go around, I’m trying to learn a new lesson: Feel your tender feelings instead of unloading frustration, piece-by-piece, on strangers.
Hey, I figure it’s gotta work out a lot better than a billy club to the head.
Dylan Patterson is a writer and filmmaker who teaches English at Cape Fear Community College.
To view more of illustrator Mark Weber’s work, go to markweberart.blogspot.com.
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