7:50 am on a Wednesday morning. I’m in my standard issue red SUV, coming out my driveway, out of my cul-de-sac, through the development, and out onto the road. Suit coat on my briefcase, briefcase on my seat, tie loosened at the collar.
And I’m on my cell phone. Of course I am. I’m a busy man.
Except it’s not a work related call. It’s my friend Bill, calling me from New Mexico, like he always does, up early like he always is, knowing I’ll be heading down the road, into my law office in Lancaster, like I always am on a Wednesday morning.
I’m a busy man.
I’m not completely sure what happened next, but as best as I can recreate it from Google, I turn
onto Walnut Street, still on the phone. At the next light down, someone comes out from Ranck Avenue onto Walnut. He’s driving something old and mottled. He has dark hair, a goatee, a soul patch, and has various parts of his face pierced.
I remember the face more than the car because I got a much better look at his face. Apparently I cut him off. I wasn’t paying attention. His car pulls up next to mine. We’re both driving about 35 miles per hour at this point. He leans out of the car, holds up his hand to his ear, talks into an imaginary cell phone, and yells at me. My windows are rolled up. But I don’t have to hear, or even lip read, to know when I’m being called an asshole.
I have gotten out of practice of being called an asshole. The mental calluses to that accusation softened and healed. That wasn’t always so. In my early years of practicing law, I made being an asshole my niche. There was a District Justice I used to practice in front of in suburban Philadelphia. He and I yelled at each other on a set-your-clock-to-it basis. My then wife was in the lobby one day and overheard the office staff taking bets on who would yell first, and how long into the preliminary hearing it would take for one of us to crack.
But that was a while ago. Two decades and more later, and I like to think I can say, honestly, my asshole days are behind me.
They aren’t. They never are. Assholeness, like herpes, only takes breathers. It will break out again. You’re never free of it.
When Pierced Face guy (and really, labeling him that is kind of being an asshole even now) called me out on my inattentiveness, I felt something, and I don’t know if I’d call it anger, or shame, though what it was that I felt borrowed from those two emotions and riffed on them. It led me to follow him slowly, not wanting to provoke him, not wanting to pull away from him, not wanting to drop too far behind him either, until I finally turned off Walnut onto Duke, and in the direction of my office, leaving him continue on without me. But I continued with him. I stayed rattled most of the morning, and could not stop thinking about it well into that night.
Did I think I was special? That my car was nicer, my job more important, that my age, education, status let me talk on the cell phone in my car and ignore him?
Of course I did. And he called me on it. He couldn’t stop me, but he could label me.
I promised myself that I would be more careful. That I would get a hands-free system, even though Pennsylvania didn’t require that, because it was the right thing to do.
Two days later I was driving like I always did. I’m still driving without a hands-free unit. I still call Bill coming out of that intersection, or the other intersection when I am traveling in the opposite direction, towards my other office.
In my head, I know I’m not special. But there’s a place for humility, and a place for its reckless sibling. It’s a place that says it’s ok; you’ve paid your dues. Here, at least, you can be an asshole.
That place still feels like my friend.