safetyTake the High Road 

by Pat Hahn

Why is it that when you need a good comeback, a biting and witty retort, when you really, truly need one, your tongue fails you? The words come eventually, brilliant scathing words that could stop a charging attorney or a runaway professor, but they come minutes, or days, too late. Your opportunity is already long gone. How many times has this happened and you wish you had the moment to do over?

Here’s how it happened to me. Several years ago I was out and about on my motorcycle. It was my first real pleasure ride that year. The evening was dry and cool, nearing dusk, and the sky was crystal clear and cloudless. I was tooling around the neighborhood, sucking in big lungs full of fresh air and hearing occasional snatches of the Allman Brothers in my head. I was probably even daydreaming, but not dangerously so.

I stopped behind a couple of cars at a light that had been red for a long time. A minivan pulled up next to me in the right-turn lane, the driver’s window down. “WHY DONTCHA LEARN HOW TO RIDE THAT BLEEPING THING!?!” a thirtyish male driver shrieked at me. Next to him on the passenger seat was a little girl with a ponytail, three or four years old.

Now, how was I supposed to respond to that? How does a responsible adult respond to such a question, one that begs for an immediate and irrevocable answer?

Let me describe who he was yelling at: a grown man riding a motorcycle, wearing jeans and a jean jacket, leather boots, heavy leather gloves. Hiding my face was a two-hundred and fifty dollar helmet emblazoned on the back with a retro-reflective MSF decal that said I had, in fact, spent the money and taken the time and learned how to “ride that thing.” (This guy was obviously an expert on motorcycles.)I glanced from him to his wide-eyed daughter and back again, momentarily speechless. But only momentarily. Then I bit, and without thinking, shouted right back at him. The wrong choice, but I didn’t realize it at the time.

What did I do to attract such attention? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. (Actually, I do know; I’m getting to that.) The guy was absolutely furious. Pink-faced, heart-attack furious. I was on a lazy evening ride, minding my own business and behaving myself, as motorcyclists do. My first guess was that I must have approached the light too slowly, coasting to a stop without braking because the light was red and I was in no hurry. (It was red anyway-what’s the difference?) I’ll admit that I didn’t know anybody was behind me. Could it have been this that evoked such ferocity? It didn’t seem reasonable. Nor did it seem reasonable that he should shout and curse at me in front of an impressionable preschooler. I wanted to smack him just on principle.

When I lived in Chicago I once saw a man get out of his car, walk calmly up to another car, and through the open driver’s side window, punch another man square in the face for cutting him off in traffic. In that same city I also witnessed some shaggy guy with a baseball bat smashing every window out of another guy’s car in the middle of downtown, in the middle of the street traffic stopped in both directions, in broad daylight, screaming “YOU WANT SOME OF THIS!?! YOU WANT A PIECE OF THIS!?! YOU THINK IT’S FUN TO PLAY GAMES!?!” I even listened, mouth agape, to the story of my best friend’s mom, who made a three-foot gouge in the trunk of somebody’s car with her keys. She was a normally good-natured, Catholic, elementary school teacher. The car’s crime: its driver had stolen the parking spot she was waiting for at the mall.

What is it with people and their cars? Do they really take driving this seriously?

I once heard a story of a gang that drove around at night in a car with the headlights off. It was a game or sport or initiation rite or some dumb thing. When someone flashed their lights at them, the gang turned around, chased them down, and shot at their car. I don’t know if this story was true or not, but it disturbed me that such a thing was even possible, not to mention believable. I wonder if it ever occurred to this guy who was yelling at me in the road, spitting and screaming and swearing while his little girl sat there next to him, that I might not be the best person to provoke? It sure would have occurred to me.

I knew a guy once who had it really tough. He worked all day to afford his two cars, his town house in the suburbs, his wife and his kids. He worked fast and hard, twelve or fourteen hours a day, and put an enormous amount of pressure on himself to succeed. His stress tolerance was legendary. He also had a most admirable quality: he refused to take his anger out on anyone hr cared about. None of his family or friends were the cause of his stress, and he was exceptionally careful not to vent it in their direction.

Sounds like a ticking time bomb, doesn’t he?

So how did he keep from exploding? He found a convenient way to blow off steam-by verbally assaulting semi-competent waitresses, indifferent or clueless retail clerks, the twin Satans of the phone company and the electric company, the mostly Spanish-speaking lawn service, and unfortunate, inanimate objects. Let the waitress forget the ketchup or salt, and watch her get a venomous lecture on attention and customer service. One minute the hotel clerk is going about his usual business, the next he is pinned, verbally, against the wall, getting bawled out for a wake-up call that never came. At two in the morning, the TV image would flicker for five or ten seconds and he would be on the phone, reaming out whoever happened to be at the cable company at that hour. With gritted teeth and clenched fists, he even kicked a dead raccoon into the woods one day when his car broke down. (It took several kicks.) I asked him one day why he acted like that. He said simply, “They’re getting paid.” I decided not to ask him about the raccoon.

The sad truth is that anything annoying can perceived as punishment, depending on the context, the victim’s disposition and ability to handle stress. Some people are able to handle it better than others. Some people take it out on themselves, which isn’t very healthy. Some people choose to take it out on everyone but themselves, which also isn’t very healthy. Some people choose to take it out on the road. This is out-and-out dangerous. “Their car may be the only thing in their lives over which they feel any sense of control, so they use their car to control other people in their cars.” Perhaps a person’s only victory on any given day is beating you to the stoplight, preventing you from changing lanes or causing you to slam on your brakes to avoid rear-ending them.

We’re all aware of how much misery loves company. By doing these things to you, they are attempting to make you part of their miserable day, or their miserable week; they’re trying to include you in their miserable life. If you respond in-kind, you’re stooping to their level, affirming their behavior and satisfying their sick, twisted desire for a game of cat-and-mouse or a shouting match, which can then escalate into further hostility and even actual, physical violence. Physical violence, for something as meaningless and nearsighted as the “race-you-to-the-next-stoplight” game. Feel sorry for these people. Feel very sorry for these people. This is not the way civilized folks behave.

I’m fortunate because, as a motorcyclist, I have the best form of transportation in the world. Being able to ride to and from work is a reward that I work toward every winter while I’m cooped up in the house. The therapeutic qualities of motorcycling can soothe any savage beast I may have built up inside me. Even when I’m stuck in slow, heavy traffic in the blazing sun, it’s difficult to get me upset. (It could be worse: I could be stuck in slow, heavy traffic in the blazing sun in some dumb car.) If somebody pulls out in front of me, I don’t get mad, I back off. If someone cuts me off, I don’t wave my fists and arms, I change lanes and forget about it. If somebody violates my space, I get over it, find a new space, and move along. (Motorcycles do these things pretty efficiently, you know.) If someone’s tailgating me, I don’t let them get to me, I let them get around me. Let them be in the Big Hurry; I’ve got better things to worry about.

I took someone else’s advice a long time ago: I protect my space, but don’t defend it. Getting angry doesn’t solve anything, on the road or anywhere else. Getting angry only exacerbates a problem. Besides, I’m not interested. Life is short enough as it is, and the riding season is even shorter. I don’t want to get run off the road, or shot, or both, and I’m not going to waste my summer in a body cast. If I crash into a car, it’s me that’s going to suffer, not the other guy. Every time. My life and health and family are worth far more to me than any sense of territory, bravado or pride I may feel when I’m riding. I have far better things on which to focus my energy.

But I’ve had the benefit of a few years to think about it. I unfortunately wasn’t quite so introspective then as I am now. When that miserable yuppie yelled at me, I was speechless-for all of about one-tenth of a second. There were a million possible things I could have done at that moment, and what did I do? The wrong thing: I fell for it. Without thinking, I yelled and swore right back at him, and then, in the final act of stupidity, tore off in a howl of furious acceleration, a reckless and irresponsible fit of road rage. I allowed him to goad me into doing something stupid on my bike that I could have gotten a ticket for, or that could have caused a wreck. All because of some narrow-minded cave dweller’s misguided opinion. I stooped to his level. I dove, jumped head first, to the primitive level where animals match punishment with aggression. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I totally bought into and affirmed that guy’s actions and probably ruined his image of motorcyclists forever.

I’ve regretted that decision since the minute it happened. I’ve played it out, over and over again, in my mind, trying different responses and imagining different outcomes. Sometimes I want to yell even louder than I did, and swear more and more foully. Sometimes I want to patronizingly scold him for his behavior. Sometimes I just want to drag him from his shiny suburban grocery-getter and beat the stuffing out of him. But I think I know now what I’ll say if something like that ever happens to me again.

“I’m sorry if you’re having a bad day, but don’t you dare take it out on me.”


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