When I was a sophomore in high school I lifted a 6-pack of beer from my father’s grocery store and went to a party. Yes, I stole from my own father, but having inherited a gene for guilt, I punished myself by choosing Old Style, which, in my circle of friends, was referred to as “dog pile.” In any case (no pun intended) the party was at a friend’s house and, of course, his parents were away. We’ll never know if it was the presence of too many cars in the driveway, or the volume of “Frampton Comes Alive” that prompted a neighbor to call the police. The knock on the front door sent most of us flying out the sliding glass doors before one of the responding officers made it around back. I ran a few houses down, stopped between a house and garage, and hid behind a propped-up wheelbarrow. It was warm and windows were open. Perhaps he heard my panting – the man who came to the side door, walked out and called, “Who’s there?” My fore mentioned Irish-Catholic, guilt-prone heritage, caused me to stand up and reveal myself in the semi-darkness. Very long seconds passed as we squinted at one another not saying a word. Then I turned and ran like hell. At fifteen I felt lucky to be alive – at fifty I am realizing that isn’t an exaggeration.
For part of my 30’s I rented an upper flat, across from a public school. It was a rainy evening and I was stepping out to let our terrier do his business when I was almost run over by an African-American man running down the sidewalk. It would have been somewhat unusual to see a black man in the neighborhood at any time, but running in the dark and rain? I admit I was afraid on several different levels as he quickly sidestepped me to avoid our colliding. In that split second I blurted out, “Are you O.K.?” Perhaps sensing he should explain, he slowed to a backwards jog and said he’d been cleaning at the school late and was afraid he’d miss the last bus at the stop three blocks away. I said, “Get in,” motioning to the baby blue Dodge Omni sitting in the driveway. My dog rode on his lap as we made small talk. He’d been working at the school for 6 months, had two little girls, and a wife in nursing school where I taught. He waited in the shelter only moments before I saw his bus arrive in my rear view mirror.
No one was hurt in either instance. Just people’s worlds crashing together in unexpected ways. No one meant to do harm, and no harm was done. But what if the older gentlemen had decided to bring a gun into his gangway and misread who I was, or what I was up to – at age 15 all red-faced from embarrassment, pimples and a can of bad beer in my belly? What if I carried a gun when walking my dog? Would I have chosen something other than “Are you OK,” to look tougher, to be tougher? Nobody knows. Sometimes there isn’t time to decide, and then again, maybe some people make up their minds long before about what they would do, or what they are going to do? Maybe they almost hope for, even pursue, the opportunity to inflict harm, and make themselves feel tougher, or more important while teaching others lessons?
Shouldn’t the law guard against our worst instincts, and not promote them, or plant ideas about vigilante bravado that might be tragically acted upon during flashing seconds of confusion and chaos?
I know, I know. Old Style and a baby-blue Dodge Omni? At least I’m alive and I haven’t killed anybody.