Commentary Journal

Reflections Of An Asshole

I can be an asshole sometimes. (“Sometimes?” My wife calls from the other room)  I know it.  I don’t want to smell your cigarette smoke, for example, and if I catch you stopping on your morning walk to let your dog shit in my yard you sure as hell better have a plastic bag in your hand.  I’ll try to be funny about it, at first, but things irk me–and it’s getting worse.

I used to be a pretty laid back guy.  I’ve only been in a few fights in my life because I’ve been not only easy going, but bigger than most people I meet.  And size matters, in bars, except when it doesn’t.

When I was younger, I noticed (how could I not?) a trend: when out and about, late at night, little guys would get a drunk on and pick me out of the crowd.  It happened half a dozen times over several years, especially in the west.  Tiny Cowboys, for some reason they found difficult to articulate, wanted to kick my ass.

I’d be minding my own business, feel a poke in the rib, and find some miniature “dude” in a pearl-snap shirt and ridiculous hat, swaying on his western bootheels and muttering “ya ain’t swo fuckin’ big ya ain’t I’wo kicks ywo ass muth-fucka.”  I distinctly remember the first time it happened, in a place called Spirits of The West in Jackson, Wyoming.

Aside: (Hey, Slim–remember that night: Shep fell of his bar stool and all those guys patted him on the back and bought him beers, even though he was wearing his manskirt?)

Normally, these guys stay in the background, in small groups, stony-faced and silent, nursing Coors Lites, obsessively clean-cut–they don’t just shave their beards, but the top layer of skin, it seems, favoring the requisite big hats and pressed, probably starched, dark blue jeans. They don’t speak to each other.  They don’t look at each other, until one of them reaches a certain level of inebriation (a challenge, drinking that lite beer) in which they’re compelled to complicate my evening.

It was a difficult situation. I didn’t want to fight because. 1). Fights hurt, win or lose. 2.) I might lose, and be embarrassed–who wants to be bested by a pint-sized pony boy?  3.) I might win, and still lose face as the 260 (then) pound guy who beat up a munchkin in a cute hat. 4) I just wanted to drink beer and talk to pseudo-hippie chicks and gawk dreamily at that bartender (with the Buddy Holly glasses and converse all-stars–if you were in JH in the early 90s you know who I mean). By necessity, I developed a strategy that served me well for the next few years in Wyoming, in Oregon, even back in Pittsburgh–I’d look past the mighty mite slobbering on my flannel shirt and lock eyes imploringly–but with utter (feigned) confidence–with his buddies, who every time looked awfully uncertain about the whole thing.  “Is this really how you want things to do down?”

In retrospect, I don’t quite believe that I summoned the wisdom to adopt that approach, because it worked.  Each time, the friends intervened and hustled the guy away.  Six times in about 4 years, this happened.

I worry that it might not be so pretty now.  It seems the older I get, the less indulgent I’ve become, and the quicker to anger.  It’s a little disconcerting.  My friend Perry once said to me, after confiding the joy he took in being arrested for brawling in Alaska, “Chuck, there comes a time in a man’s life–it happened to me in my 40’s–when he just wants to kick some ass.”  Perry, a PhD., had walked away from a career as a psychologist to work as a professional fishing guide, and on the scale of cowboys he leaned heavily to the side of Willie Nelson, rather than John Wayne.

It was not until the past few years that I felt anger so sudden and blinding that I trembled and stumbled over my words–dealing with a corporate client who refused to pay a debt, for example, I could barely express myself on the phone.  The aforementioned cigarette smoking–in line at the movies?  C’mon man.  The woman who stops to let her dog squat in my front yard.  I won’t even talk about road rage.  It is the inconsideration that gets to me most.  I legitimately worry that I’m going to snap. This young lady knows what I’m talking about:

This applies to athletic events even more than it does to concerts.

Last year, at a big swim meet, I came the closest to full-scale meltdown.  We were surrounded by parents from Sunbury, PA (no need not to call them out, they’re the worst parents I’ve encountered on the swimming circuit) who sat down after we did–Sunbury is a huge team, with lots of resources, and lots of nose in the air attitude.  At least a dozen of them, in matching t-shirts, were compulsively filming events with iPads–you’ve seen this maneuver, I bet, (look above) in which the idiot holds their techno-toy just above forehead level, to capture the images over the heads of the people sitting in front of them, while blithely blocking the view of the folks sitting behind them.  It is one of the ultimate demonstrations of communal indifference and disregard, and a supreme demonstration of self-absorption.

I held my tongue, leaning the the right and the left when I could.  Oh, I muttered a few, over-loud snarky comments to my wife, but I ignored the impulse to reach out in front of me and push the devices down in front of their owner’s own eyes.  Then, I hear my wife, “Oh, shit.”  She lifts her purse from the floor and it’s dripping something my nose quickly tells me is coffee–but not just coffee, we later discover, but thick, sticky Starbucks cappuccino.  We both sort of stand and squat to look under the bleachers.

“Sit down, would you?” The guy behind us commands.  No please, no smile.

I feel bad, for just a moment, until I see the Starbucks cup on it’s side, between his feet, and the trail of sugary goo.  “Is that yours?” I ask.

He shrugs, and tilts his shoulder to look around me, so I stand to my full height–there’s no looking around me without taking a short stroll.  “Is…that…yours?”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Oh, the derision in his eyes–all he’s thinking about is his view.

The red curtain drops over my eyes.  I can hear my pulse.

“How about you apologize, then clean up your fucking mess….”

There was a moment when I could see him consider the gauntlet, and then he backed down.  His wife found some napkins in her purse and he cleaned up around his feet.  My wife, holding my right wrist, pulled me back down to the bleachers and I didn’t turn around again.  Later on, left to reflect, I was confused.  I’ve always avoided fights, but I realized that I was aching for him to give me an excuse.  I wanted badly to hit the guy, to feel his nose break, to smell his blood and break that smirk against my knuckles.  Over a $50 suede handbag that we actually were able to clean.  Where does that come from?

I think about that asshole who shot a guy at point blank range in Florida theater for texting during the previews and one thing comes to mind: I will never carry a weapon in public, nor should anyone else, although in the end it’s just another test of our resolve and our adherence to our professed values.  Do  some aggressive people, like those lilliputian rodeo wannabes, carry that through their lives every day, just one emotional trigger away from a catastrophe?  Is this hormonal–something to do with my age.  I don’t have any answers, but the questions are interesting.