"You better watch your @#%, buddy. You must have been going 70 miles an hour through my neighborhood. I have 3 kids, and you could have hit them."
These words — wild, unexpected, and loud — echoed like a stray gunshot across the Shop and Save parking lot at 9:40 am today. I was there to pick up ingredients for Gooey Butter Cake. I'd just parked my car, and I had one foot in the door when the 'shot' sounded. I retraced my step, and considered the words, “You better...”
Then, I spotted the man who’d just yelled them. This was not the picture of a brawler. Just the opposite. He was in his mid 40’s, lacking the figure of a fighter. His round belly protruded like a blue moon — no doubt as a result of many Blue Moons — over the straight horizon of his stick figure. He had a surfer’s hair cut: a neatly combed flop of longish bushy brown hair. He was dressed, not as a warrior, or even as an adult, but like one of The Beach Boys, with khaki shorts, and a bowling shirt. His face shown — not with a man of labor’s hard earned bronze tan — but with the crispy golden glow of Bronze Tanning. The picture was completed by a surprise. Amidst all this, there sat responsibility and manly stress on his forehead; this explained the words, “I have 3 kids.” All in all, the man who yelled at somebody didn’t look like a man who yelled at anybody. He looked like an out of shape, out of his element, ex-member of The Beach Boys who'd just settled down awkwardly to family life in the Midwest.
"You better…” I had no idea what these words meant, or for whom they were meant. They were not yelled in an especially threatening way. They were just yelled. At first, their threatening content was even hidden from me. They were, after all, spoken by a Beach Boy. So, I stood there, and stared in confusion as this yelling Beach Boy rushed forward like a man on a chase.
Then, I noticed, standing about 30 yards from The Beach Boy, a menacing figure with a Mohawk. Yes, this guy really had a Mohawk. He was, just then, loading his front seat with frat party quantities of cheap beer. He was, apart from me and The Beach Boy, the only other person in the parking lot. He looked tough: he had a Mohawk for one, and if that isn't the universal sign of tough, I don't know what is. He looked tougher on a second glance: his face was gaunt and dark; he had a goatee complimented by a patchy "I just don't like shaving" beard; and, he had a lean and hungry frame. Plus, his arms were loaded down a hefty supply of cheap beer, which translates, in any culture, "I just bought a ridiculous amount of beer for a party with my wild posse. Drinking will not be in moderation. Guess what? I'm not too concerned about things like taxes, a mortgage, peace-love, or the long term consequences of binge drinking." I would've guessed this guy was a junior member of a motorcycle gang if he hadn't, at that moment, been standing next to his car: a 95' Honda Civic, beat up, but tricked out, in gangster-from-the-suburbs fashion. The whole image of this man -- we'll call him The Bad Boy -- was the opposite of The Beach Boy. He was young; The Beach Boy was (by comparison) old. He was hardcore, contemporary, counter-culture; The Beach Boy was soft-core, anachronous, retro-culture. He looked dangerous; The Beach Boy looked harmless. The two men were caricatures of their respective places in the world. The Bad Boy could sign an endorsement deal for Calvin Klein, and represent reckless and youthful, but determined and willful, irresponsibility. The Beach Boy, on the other hand, could get an endorsement deal with JP Morgan as the spokesman for deferred, but accepted, adult responsibility.
The words, "You better..." shot across the parking lot, and The Bad Boy looked up innocently, juggling cases of beer, preparing to drive away. Like me, he couldn’t comprehend at whom, or for what, The Beach Boy was yelling. The Beach Boy said no more; he seemed fearful The Bad Boy would escape. So, he hustled on dejectedly, like a left-behind child. He finally caught The Bad Boy’s eye, and zeroed in on him, as if to say, “I’m talking to you.” The Bad Boy did a double take, and so did I.
I deduced the 15 minutes leading to this moment only afterward. Apparently, The Beach Boy, who was a 40-something father of 3, had seen The Bad Boy speeding by his home in a nearby residential area. Energized by the wrath of a father, he then pursued The Bad Boy on foot, and had been hiking the last 15 minutes, doing his best to catch him. During this 15 minutes, The Bad Boy had arrived at Shop and Save, mosied in, completed his beer purchase, and walked back to his car. All the while, oblivious that he was being chased. The Beach Boy had reached the parking lot just as The Bad Boy reached his car, in the nick of time, and screamed, “You better…” I suppose he screamed, not just because he was angry, but also because he was about to lose the man he'd labored so hard to run down.
It took The Bad Boy the equivalent of a full beat in a horror film to realize he was the target of the warning and insult, "You better..." It took him another beat to process himself being berated by a retired Beach Boy. During those moments, it was easy to read his thoughts. First, confusion and awe: Who is he yelling at? Me? Why? Next, to my surprise, a hint of fear: Who is this crazy guy? After these 2 dramatic beats, recognition and annoyance (not anger) rose in The Bad Boy's face: This yuppie is yelling at me! Me!
What did The Bad Boy do then? He surprised me again. He patiently finished loading the beer into his Honda. At the time, this floored me. It seemed out of order, like when a DVD skips ahead. I would have expected this order: 1) The Beach Boy insults The Bad Boy, 2) In reply, The Bad Boy insults The Beach Boy, 3) The Bad Boy pulverizes The Beach Boy, AND THEN, 4) The Bad Boy coolly loads his car. Nope. He patiently loaded his car. At the time this seemed out order. Upon reflection, it seems more so. 1) The Beach Boy insulted the Bad Boy, AND THEN, 2) The Bad Boy loaded his car. What makes this an important narrative detail? It shows intention. The Bad Boy wanted to get out of there. He didn't want to stay and finish this conversation. My guess is that the shock and confusion of being rudely threatened by a stranger, in a parking lot, out of the blue, caused The Bad Boy to instinctively choose flight, not fight. I wonder if the weirdness of the whole situation caught him off guard: if he, like me, couldn't really comprehend what was happening quick enough to react. I’d venture that in another, less bizarre, context, The Bad Boy would pummel The Beach Boy on the spot.
After putting away the beer, The Bad Boy replied with an x-rated insult, and then started getting in his car. Next, the two men exchanged unintelligible and profane screaming for a few seconds. I was sure this would lead to a physical confrontation, but The Beach Boy at last seemed to grasp that he was courting bodily injury. So, he mentioned something about the police. In response, The Bad Boy, still bewildered by it all, slammed his door with flair, and started his car. The Beach Boy was now delirious with emotion mixed with anger mixed with fear for his life, and screamed like a jilted girl, "I have your license plate," as The Bad Boy sped away.
The Beach Boy turned toward me, still huffing, and I got a closer look. His face was afire with rage, but not the kind that makes men fight: the kind that makes men talk about fighting. His was a righteous, but overzealous and childish, indignation. I imagine, had I spoken to him, he would have yelled at me. I imagine, when he got home, he did yell at his wife and kids. My first impression of him was wrong: he is not the kind of man who doesn’t yell; he is the kind of man who only yells.
The Beach Boy marched by me with a curious mix of bravado and dissatisfaction. Sure, he could say — and I'm sure he will to his buddies at the office — I really told that punk. But so what? No lessons had been learned, humanity had not been healed. More importantly, no peaceful agreement had been reached on The Bad Boy's future driving practices in Ballwin. Were the Beach kids any safer for this 15 minute rage march, and 1 minute screaming match? Nope. The apparent quest: stop this guy from speeding around my kids was unfulfilled. No wonder he looked dissatisfied.
I imagine The Bad Boy was just as dissatisfied: he'd just been humiliated by a random out of shape guy in the parking lot of Shop and Save. Regrettably, he’ll regret his lack of violent response. Even though, that very response saved him greater regrets.
As The Beach Boy walked away, I walked into Shop and Save, got a buggy, and searched for yellow cake mix. I spent some time pondering the whole situation. Being the only witness, what should I have done? Tried to break it up? Taken a side? Whose side? The Beach Boy was safe at first to be angry about dangerous driving — but out at second; he went nuclear, and approached The Bad Boy with reckless velocity. The Bad Boy was safe at first to be confused and upset by a vulgar tirade — but also out at second; he'd endangered children with reckless velocity.
At first, I took The Beach Boy’s side. While I was walking around Shop and Save, I even considered tracking him down, and congratulating him for his courage in standing up to such a menacing looking guy. Then, I realized it wasn’t courage that led him to that parking lot, but recklessness: the very same recklessness that led The Bad Boy to speed through Ballwin. The Beach Boy was speeding, on his feet, toward what might have been a dangerous collision; all the while, angry that someone had dared speed, in a car, toward what might have been a dangerous collision. In the end, The Beach Boy is the more tragically comic figure of the two men. He is so unaware, and self-righteous. He’s the butt of the joke he plays on others. He condemns in others what he won’t condemn in himself. He sees in others what he won’t see in himself. In fact, had he eased up on the speed of his anger, he might have talked graciously with The Bad Boy, and just maybe, The Bad Boy would have repented for the speed of his Honda. The image of The Beach Boy is now firmly set in my mind as downright silly: an immature middle-aged hothead, dressed like a beach bum, yelling like a mad man across a parking lot.