Why did the man cross the road?
The short answer is to get to the other side. The long answer is to hasten the collapse of civilization.
A recent commute brought me eyeball-to-eyeball with this timeless riddle as I was driving downtown past St. Vincent Medical Center when a pedestrian ignored two nearby crosswalks in favor of jaywalking--a move that halted traffic in both directions.
Under certain circumstances, this is not an act that places civilization in jeopardy. For instance, if the jaywalker's hair was on fire and there was a bucket of water on the other side of the road, then it would be OK. Or if he was being pursued by a land shark, that'd be fine too.
But there was no fire, no shark. This was an able-bodied gentleman, by the looks of him probably a medical professional, pulling one of those wheeled briefcase carriers across a busy street. Quite evidently a lazy, inconsiderate human being.
Of course, civilization has survived centuries of lazy inconsiderates and, indeed, there is today a thriving class of them called "customer service representatives." It's what happened next that could end the world as we know it.
After holding up eastbound traffic (my side), the jaywalker was momentarily caught in the middle of the street. When the car in front of me passed by him, I realized in a few seconds I would be within arm's length of Mr. Lazy Inconsiderate.
A split-second decision was at hand. With no police in sight, what were my fellow inconvenienced motorists and I to do about this scofflaw? We could pray. Pray that God would smite this traffic infidel. But that would be asking a lot.
Or we could take the truly high road and be comforted by the knowledge that all acts great and small contain within them their own rewards and punishments. We could all go our merry way, forget the man's selfishness, and tell ourselves, "The best revenge is living well." That sounds nice, but I wanted to see him suffer, and soon.
So, should I just run him over? On the plus side, my car is old and there was a fine hospital just steps away. But, let's face it, as a longtime advocate for civilization, it wouldn't do to steamroll a man for a relatively minor legal infraction.
My split-second was almost up. I decided to put my decades of training in the use of the English language to work. I rolled down my window. "Use the @!#*@*! crosswalk!" I recommended.
Judging from his reaction, I doubt he will take my suggestion to heart. Indeed, his response was something new (this is the part where civilization is threatened). Instead of feeling shame, as any citizen who lives under the social contract should, he presented me with a well-known gesture of indignation.
Naive as it may sound, his middle finger pointed in my direction surprised me. Not the gesture itself, because I get that all the time. And though I didn't expect an apology, I did expect some sign of regret or shame. Shame, after all, is one of the very thin threads that holds society together. Without it, everybody would be sneaking into the 10-item express lane with 11 items or coming to work naked, and then where would we be?
This guy put his own needs, illegally, over those of about a dozen strangers in automobiles. I don't think even he could have fooled himself into thinking otherwise. So it wasn't his lawbreaking that outraged me so much as his shamelessness. He had done wrong and didn't care.
President Clinton begged our pardons for Monica Lewinsky, the pope regretted the treatment of Orthodox Christians, and W. apologized for the spy plane. No, wait, W. said he was "very sorry" for the spy plane. How hard could it be, then, for this guy to give some nod of guilt for violating traffic laws? Apparently, pretty hard.
Again, my first instinct was to stop the car and encourage him to feel sorry about it with a good ol' fashioned pummeling. But then I'd be contributing to the collapse of Western civilization.
In the end, maturity won out and instead of physical violence I opted to whine about the incident to friends, family and even a few strangers. Why, yes, they said, they could think of plenty of examples of people being inconsiderate or rude and when challenged about it reacting with anger. Cell phone users in movie theaters. Double-parkers. Smokers.
So (here's my plea for civilization), if you're one of these types or have pioneered any other acts of selfish annoyance, please, please--even if you can't stop being inconsiderate--when challenged about your bad manners have the decency to feel ashamed about it.