As the boy and I were walking back from school to my office yesterday, we heard a man yelling. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but the tone was one you would expect when someone was angry at a child.
No, not angry.
I couldn’t see him at first, but I could tell he was nearby. Up ahead, on the left. We were crossing through the parking lot of a bank, and a row of cars blocked him from view.
As we came to the end of the row, I looked in the direction of the noise. I’m still not sure if that was a mistake or not.
He was alone.
No cell phone. No earpiece. Nothing in his hands. Jacket open. Walking towards our general direction.
He’s still ranting.
I still can’t make out exactly what he’s saying.
Then he saw my eyes. I wasn’t looking at his eyes, though. I was still looking at him.
Outside pockets of his coat seem empty. Mid 50s. Hours later the word I was searching for in that moment would occur to me: Ragged.
"You got something to say?" he asked.
He’s not reaching for anything.
I’m between him and my son. He’s far enough away that he’d have to make some effort to get in my face. Go for the nose, if he starts something.
Respond or don’t respond? Respond. He’s get worse if he thinks I’m blowing him off. Disrespectful.
Respond hard to try to warn him off? No, he’s itching for a fight. He’s mad at someone and we’re right here.
Will I seem like a coward if I don’t meet his challenge? Don’t care. Just want to disengage as quickly as possible. Don’t fuel the fire.
"Nope," I said, shaking my head slightly and looking back towards where we were walking, "Nothin’ at all." It was my best attempt at seeming casual, although I can’t vouch for how convincing it was from the outside.
"Alright," he said.
I realized that we were about to walk down the side of the bank building which has almost no windows from the bank, and a fence on the other side. Not much we could do about it now, but assuming he kept walking, he was going to be behind us.
I didn’t want him behind us.
I tend to walk fairly quickly, especially with the weather turning colder, and we hadn’t broken stride. If he kept his pace we’d be about half-way down the driveway by the time he turned the corner to follow. He was walking steadily, but slower than we were. I still didn’t want him behind us, but the only other option now was to go towards him.
We went down the driveway.
"I’m sorry about your kid," he yelled.
Is he talking to me, or has he picked up the ‘conversation’ he was having before? Sorry about what? Sorry that he heard you yelling? The tone wasn’t very apologetic.
Nope, just let it go.
We reached the end of the driveway and turned right.
He seemed to drift off behind us. Maybe he went the other way.
"He’s either A) drunk, or B) on drugs," offered The Boy.
"Yup," I said, "Or crazy. Or more than one of those."
"D, all of the above."
"Could be. Best plan with someone like that is to not give them anything to go on, nothing that will make them angrier."
"Yeah," he replied.
Silence for a moment.
"What’s the best fight?" I asked.
"The one you don’t have?" he suggested.
"Exactly. If you don’t have a choice, then you go in with everything you have. But if you don’t have to, then don’t."
We reached the intersection where the light had just changed. We turned and crossed the street.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the man round the corner. He was coming down the street. I couldn’t hear him, so I assumed he was no longer ranting, but the way he carried himself showed he was still wound up. He made no indication that he either saw us, was looking for us, or cared about us.
Fine with me. Moving on.
Looking back on it now, I’m amazed how many thoughts went through my head in what must have been only a few seconds’ time. I’ve spent a lot of years sizing people up as potential threats. Not sure if that’s the result of growing up as a fat kid who was always an easy target if someone was looking for one, or just the way that my mind works.
When can remember when I was in 7th grade, a bunch of us got into a fight with a bunch of other kids from another school. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever been in a real fight.
It did not go well.
I can remember many fights I backed away from because I didn’t think I could win.
I can remember one time I lost it completely and might have done something rash if a teacher had not come into the room to see me holding down my 6’4” bully on one of the tables in the science lab, screaming into his face.
God, I wish I had a picture of that moment. What an asshole that guy was. Fortunately he was such an obvious, stereotypical high school dumb-jock who does nothing but make other people’s lives miserable that everyone knew it. I can still see how completely shocked and maybe even scared he was. Hell, I was pretty shocked myself. I don’t remember a single thing that was said in the conversation that followed. He remained an asshole, but he left me alone more often after that. I’m pretty sure the teacher never told anyone what happened, or if he did, nothing ever came of it. Still, a picture would be awesome.
I can remember one fight I still wish I had gotten into, although I suspect I would have gotten my ass kicked.
I can remember one time I gave very serious consideration to smashing in the head of one of my classmates with an aluminum baseball bat I had in my hand.
(I was on the baseball team at the time. I’m not that crazy. We were on a bus, headed back from a game. Or to a game, maybe. Doesn’t matter.)
Another teammate must have seen what was going through my mind, because he very casually reached over and moved the bat from my hand into his, without saying a word or drawing any attention to himself.
But that’s another story, and not one I wish to retell.
(Trust me, though, if I did, you’d want to swing the bat too.)
What surprises me the most about today is that part of my brain that keeps trying to tell me that it was cowardice not to engage him more directly, not to push back, not to throw out something witty and antagonistic. At the same point the more rational side of my brain is saying, "What? Don’t be stupid. What would that have accomplished?"
I didn’t run away in fear.
I didn’t make a potentially bad situation worse.
I know I could do that, but I’m going to do this instead.
"Yeah, but you could have done this or you could have said that."
Why are you still talking? There’s no outcome that’s better than ‘The crazy, drunk, or drugged guy went his way, and I went mine.’
"Yeah, but what if—"
Oh just shut up already.