I’ll be honest — I was not in a good mood this morning.
I had a long day yesterday, so I was tired and kind of cranky to begin with. Then I got on the train and couldn’t find my cellphone. So I searched all over for it, figured I’d left it in the car, got off the train and caught the next train back to my home station, couldn’t find it in my car, drove home, couldn’t find it at home, got on the computer and saw — thanks to the wonders of modern technology — that it was still on the train. So I jumped back in the car in hopes that I could catch up with the train somewhere down the line and retrieve my phone.
But first, I needed some cold, carbonated, sugar-free caffeine. And a lot of it. I stopped at a convenience store and filled a plastic cup big enough to get me hauled off to the hoosegow in New York City and then waited in line to give the clerk my down payment.
While I was standing in line, I noticed a young couple in the next line, talking raucously. The young man was wearing a baggy T-shirt that had something written on it. Now, I am an inveterate T-shirt reader — if you have something written on your chest, I’m going to read it. I figure if you don’t want me staring at your chest, you won’t put writing there for me to read.
So I read his chest. Well, actually, the writing pretty much covered the whole front of his shirt, so I read his entire torso. I couldn’t believe what I had just read. So I looked closer. Sure enough, one of the words on his shirt was of the foul, four-letter variety, in big, bold letters.
I guess I was staring. I just hadn’t seen that particular word featured so prominently on a T-shirt before. Or maybe the expression on my face revealed my disdain for that word. For whatever reason, I seem to have made the young man uncomfortable.
“You got a problem?” he said, startling me from whatever it was that I was thinking.
Normally, I would have made some kind of joke out of it (“No, I was just noticing how much you look like Ashton Kutcher. Are you related?”). But like I said, I wasn’t in a mood to brook nonsense — not to mention T-shirt obscenity — so I looked him straight in the eye.
“Yes I do,” I told him. “I was just trying to decide whether or not to tell you how much your T-shirt offends me.”
“Well, I don’t give a (expletive deleted) what you think,” he said, invoking the same profanity that was on his shirt. Apparently he has a limited vocabulary. So I just sort of shook my head and turned my attention back to the clerk. And maybe I rolled my eyes. A little.
In retrospect, it was probably the eye rolling that got to him. He took a step toward me. I think he was trying to be menacing, but he was about 5-5, 110 pounds — roughly the same size I was in fifth grade, only about 50 pounds lighter. I may be old, but I’m not so old that I’m going to feel threatened by someone who isn’t big enough to ride the roller coaster without a grown-up.
“Why don’t you ” He unleashed a stream of what I assume were rhetorical suggestions that were both grammatically incorrect (clearly we are not doing a good job with conjugation and noun-verb agreement in our public schools) and physiologically impossible.
It was actually kind of funny, in a pathetically troubling way — like a Chihuahua yapping at a grizzled old St. Bernard. But the clerk at the convenience store wasn’t amused. In fact, she looked downright concerned, as if she was trying to remember the store’s protocol for handling fistfights in front of the slushy drink machine.
I glanced at the counter and noticed a box of big, hand-wrapped caramels. Impulsively, I grabbed two of them and handed them to the young man and his girlfriend.
“I think we started off on the wrong foot,” I said. “Here — have a caramel.”
The girlfriend smiled brightly. “Thanks!” she said. “I love these things!”
The young man just looked at me. Then he looked at the caramel. Then he looked at his girlfriend. While he was trying to figure out whether to hit me or hug me, I paid for my drink and the caramels and left the store. As I drove away, it occurred to me that maybe I had stumbled onto something here. Maybe diplomacy and negotiation are overrated as tools for dealing with hostility and confrontation. Maybe we just need to be willing to occasionally step away from a fight, even if our cause is righteous and the risk of losing is slight.
Oh, and evidently, it also helps if you have a really big box of caramels.
(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com.)