When You Meet a Crazy Man at the Stoplight

I realize this is a stop sign, but hey, its what I have to work with.

The human propensity to mind other people`s business fascinates and baffles me.

A few days ago, a friend and I drove to a downtown park to walk along a waterfront trail. Along the way, we had to stop at a traffic light on a busy street and make a left turn. My friend, in the driver`s seat, pulled part-way into the intersection and waited patiently for an opportunity to turn left. There was a steady stream of oncoming traffic and, when a fast-moving vehicle roared through the yellow light, she hesitated and ended up parked in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk.

At this point my friend might have pulled back, but by now there was another vehicle sitting directly behind us so she had nowhere to go.  Now, her intentions were good, no? Would anyone doubt that? Is it anyone’s business anyway?

As we waited for the light to change again, I happened to look out the passenger window. To my right, there was a man in a compact car, a very angry man, gesturing wildly and apparently yelling, though I couldn’t hear a word through the closed window. He was yelling loudly. At me. He pointed toward the front of our vehicle, at our position over top of the crosswalk, all the while shouting and waving his other hand wildly about. I translated this as:

“You inconsiderate fool! What the hell do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are?”

Meanwhile, an unruffled pedestrian passed in front of us.

It took only a second or two to register this transaction, at which point, I simply turned away and focussed on what my friend was saying about the stock market. It wasn’t as though there were anything I could do about the situation. I wasn`t driving, and I wasn’t about to engage with a Crazy Man. So, I ignored him.

Did not so much as acknowledge his existence, if you must know.

The light changed, we turned left and drove to the park. The incident, if you can call it that, stuck in my mind like a rock in my shoe. The image of the shrieking silent man accompanied me on our walk along the trail and all the way home. It followed me everywhere I went for the next few days, that image, and the undeniable sense that I had failed, that I had been a coward. You could have at least made eye contact. You could have smiled. There is no excuse for not acknowledging another human being, even someone with whom you may not agree. Maybe especially someone with whom you may not agree.

I re-played the scene with any number of alternative endings:

Take 1: I roll down the window, smile, and ask “How can I help you?”, whereupon the Crazy Man shrieks that I am an idiot and have no business blocking the crosswalk. I then look pointedly at the position of the vehicle, smile and say, “Thank you. You are absolutely right,” and roll up my window.

Take 2: As above, but for introducing myself off the top: “Hi, I’m Lisa. What is your name?” I thought that might be rather disarming.

Take 3: I simple smile and smile at the man, kindly. Maybe shrug.

None of these scenarios is satisfying, though, because in each case, I still see the Crazy Man yelling at me. There’s nothing I can do about that, of course, so why does it bother me? Why do I care? Why am I so hooked by this display, this blunt illustration of the Human Propensity to Mind Other People’s Business? We were not blocking Crazy Man’s way. He was not the pedestrian. The pedestrian didn’t seem to be the least bothered. Why was Crazy Man so bent out of shape? And why am I so bent out of shape? Why did I instantly label him Crazy Man? It is not as though I am immune to judging the behaviour of others, obviously.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do have a sense that I might spend the rest of my life trying to figure them out. I don’t think that would be a waste of time.

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