the altercation and the aftermath

18 November 2005, 11:09 pm

Thursday morning I was crossing a busy one-way three-lane road on foot. I was in a block where a highway turns into a road with traffic signals. Two vehicles had stopped and were motioning me across, even though I hadn’t reached the crosswalk. The far lane was clear. Somewhat against my better judgment, I started to cross (I thought I saw what could have been my bus approaching).

A red SUV going too fast swerved into the right hand lane to avoid slowing for the stopped traffic ahead. The driver belatedly screeched to a halt when he saw me. He hollered something — I have no idea what. I hollered back. I think I used the phrase “planet killer.” I continued crossing behind him.

The driver pulled to the curb, rolled down his passenger window, and extended a cordial invitation to continue our discussion at greater length.

At this point we were both full of righteous indignation — he because, after all, I had been jaywalking, and probably startled him, me because his arrogant, reckless behavior was reinforcing my stereotypes of SUV drivers. Two angry people, each convinced he’s in the right, can be a volatile mix.

The reflexes I leanred for urban confrontation in DC took over. I didn’t want to give him a clear shot, just in case he was crazy enough to try to put bullets into me in front of witnesses, so I declined to approach his vehicle. I was tempted to issue a counter-invitation for him to leave his overgrown Hot Wheels toy so we could continue our discourse, but I managed to hold my tongue. An assault and battery charge would be a) awfully inconvenient and b) play havoc with my reputation as a pacifist.

After casting a few more aspersions on my character, he left the scene.

This morning, as I neared the same intersection at roughly the same time, I found myself replaying the incident. I tried to compute the odds that I’d encounter the same driver. I thought they were slim: a lot of traffic, a short window of time.

I was wrong.

“Hey, [expletive],” he called, not unpleasantly [really]. “Are you going to cross in the crosswalk this time?”

“I don’t know,” I responded. “Are you going to swerve into the right-hand lane again?”

He laughed. “I love my SUV!” he said, and sped off.

“Well, I love my planet!” I don’t think he heard my reply, but it didn’t really matter. The situation had been defused, and I was actually in a better mood than I’d been as I was running scenarios in my head.

But it doesn’t do anything about my larger problem, the growing toxicity of my driver-directed anger. Each time a driver endangers me or is notably rude just adds to the mouting pile. I’ve begun to think of it like doses of hard radiation or mercury: it just accumulates in my system, getting more and more poisonous. I don’t have any socially acceptable outlet for it. My response to this particular driver was completely disproportionate because it was the sum of my anger about several dozen incidents. Weirdly, being aware of this doesn’t help me manage it any better. Yesterday was pretty typical. My arms and legs shook for several minutes as I tried to calm myself down, and my mood was soured for hours.


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