Tuesday, April 17, 2007

life in the civilized world

Since my photo uploading capabilities are currently compromised, I’m left with nothing but to tell this story about an event from yesterday that I was intimately involved with. Certain parts of the story can be characterized as “dramatization.”

I was walking in the park as I often do on a nice day. A man approached me from down the trail. We exchanged greetings. I nodded and said “hello.” His words came out as “hi-do.” I believe he intended something more along the lines of “how-do,” an awkward enough expression, but balked, stumbling instead into this mutant greeting.

After we passed I felt certain of his shame and embarrassment. I know something about the regrets one can have upon an unexpected vocal or cognitive spasm. A grocery clerk says “thank you” and I reply “you too.” Or I respond to a greeting with an attempt to make a smile audible, which forces something from my nose. My psyche winces as I wish I could renegotiate that instance. The order of things is momentarily torn asunder.

But I handled yesterday’s exchange with poise and precision. You see, as a frequent walker, I’ve developed an impressive catalogue of greetings for passers-by. In a case like this, when there is well-defined eye-contact, a solid nod and clearly audible “hello” is most efficient. Sometimes, when the approaching party appears to anticipate my arrival over the course of, say, forty feet, I will offer a “how’s-it-going” or “you-doin’-alright?” In such a case, I allow myself room for improvisation. They may speak first – a potential problem, depending largely on the absurdity of their utterance, but less threatening now that I’ve garnered valuable experience.

Virtually every greeting includes head movement and a gentle wave. With joggers and cyclists this works best unaccompanied by sound. My right arm bends at the elbow, the palm of my hand is slightly exposed, and the two longer fingers extend more fully than the rest. Ask yourself how Jesus would wave. It communicates that I am unarmed, that I mean no harm, and that I, like them, am a meek traveler on this narrow path. I wish them well, and I welcome their well-wishes.

It also communicates that the hand I am showing them is what I will use to constrict their larynx should they turn out to be a hostile predator. I am also capable of the old knee to the groin should it come to that.

A greeting, then, should be the perfect balance of friendliness, caution, fearlessness, solitude, and single-mindedness. For the record, the perfect balance is 20% friendliness, 12% caution, 23% fearlessness, 32% solitude, and the rest single-mindedness.

I must confess at this point that I have heretofore withheld a crucial element to the story. There is, alas, a history behind the meeting I had with this stranger. It goes back as far as, oh, twenty minutes prior. At one point I was actually behind this man. I was moving along at my usual pace, one required for a decent workout, but not manic.

Ideally, everything on the trail moves in harmony. Joggers pass walkers, cyclists pass joggers, and nobody has to deal with anyone else for too long. Imagine walker A leaves point X at 1:00 PM. Walker B leaves point X at 1:15. Walker B should remain roughly 15 minutes behind walker A through the duration of the walk with only slight moderation in distance. Well, that gets ruined if walker A should turn out to be a lollygagger. If walker A is a dim-witted sloth and walker B happens to be a normal person, then walker B is going to have a perfectly fine walk ruined, and will engender feelings of rage toward walker A, that lazy slack-monkey.

As I was walking along yesterday, I saw that I was gradually approaching this man. I had to make up my mind whether to shuffle my feet and stay equidistant behind him, or pick up the pace a little so as to smooth the eventual passing, despite the discomfort of prolonged proximity it was bound to bring each of us.

My decision was facilitated when he pulled out his cell phone. I knew, first, that he wasn’t likely to speed up anytime soon, and second, that if I had to wait behind someone on a cell phone, I would be tempted to stone him. So I increased speed, moved to the left, and got my pass on. Since he was on the phone I did not interact with him. My only concession to his existence was the berth I gave him. I am, after all, decent.

I also listened to his conversation. He seemed to be bragging about some deal he had brokered earlier in the day. This is important to the story. He was apparently talking to some woman he would be with later. His wife, perhaps. They might celebrate, but neither seemed particularly hungry. Eventually, the whole sordid conversation faded behind me.

Minutes later, alone, I turned around at my “turnaround,” knowing that my trip back to point X would likely involve repeat encounters. Sure enough, here comes Mr. Dealbroker from around the corner, now with his shirt back on (thank God).

From a distance I think I recognize him as a long-time nemesis: The-Guy-Who-Never-Acknowledges-Me. When I’d passed from behind I hadn’t looked at his face and I hadn’t made that connection. But now it looks like him, the surly guy who behaves as if the intensity of his shuffling is too important to be interrupted by a simple act of humanity.

My eyes turn to the ground; my mind reviews proper procedure for administering the old knee to the groin.

But as I look up again I see it is not my nemesis after all. It is a friendly enough face, ruddy from a hard day of brokering, phone talking, and sauntering. He means no harm or disrespect.

“Hi . . . do.”

Sure, I feel superior. Why wouldn’t I? But I feel compassion as well. I understand the wound this must have caused him and the lingering self-loathing. Perhaps he will unburden himself to an understanding wife. His shame might fade, and his embarrassment might be soothed by the relative comforts of his life. And perhaps someday there will come a chance for redemption.


RhetorRick said...

That was beautiful. Be thankful you don't have Gabby-The-Non-Stop-Yapper on your route, or The Lady with the Doberman - for some reason, we always cross paths. And all I have to show for it is a wiener dog.

May all your jaunts be pleasant.


Phil Poulter said...

Thank you Wiener-Dog-Man