Thursday, January 8, 2009

Odd Trip To The Gas Bar

This happened last night, not long after I posted the previous item. I went out to the local gas bar for a fillup. I wound up at the front pump in the lane furthest to the left. There's a curb alongside that lane, which was covered by a few inches of snow. I filled up, went inside and paid.

When I came back out, there was a van sitting across my exit, its nose pointing toward the lane to my right, which was fully occupied at the time. The van was diagonal across my lane, leaving me not quite enough room to get out. No problem, I thought, I was in no hurry. I got in, started my engine, and waited.

After a couple of minutes, the van shifted back and forth a few inches. It was on an incline, and it looked like the driver was driving a standard and moving a bit as he worked the clutch and brake. He shifted the van straight back a couple of feet, but it still wasn't far enough from the left-hand curb for me to get out.

The driver got out and walked over to my car. At this point I was starting to think that maybe he wanted into this lane, despite the fact that the nose of his van was pretty clearly pointed toward the lane on the other side of the pumps. I had already realized that he had no idea - or no concern - that he was blocking me in, but as noted, that didn't bother me.

He was heavyset and considerably older than me, but not a pension candidate yet - probably in his early fifties. Instead of walking to the driver's side of my car and knocking on the window, as I expected, he walked up the passenger side. Then, instead of knocking on the window on that side, he opened the door and got in. His feet were still on the ground outside but he was sitting on the seat, twisting around and leaning in (not so far as to seem threatening) to talk to me.

His tone wasn't friendly or cheerful, as I was expecting, but it wasn't angry either. "Excuse me," he said just a bit sharply, "but I'd like to get some gas here."

"No problem," I replied in a much more pleasant tone than his. "I just don't have room to get out around you. If you want this spot, back up a little so I can get through and it's all yours."

He hesitated, looked out at the gap between his van and the curb, and said, "You can get through there."

No, I couldn't. "There's a curb under that snow, and I'm not putting this car over it. Just move over a couple of feet and we'll be all set."

He paused again, longer this time, and restated: "You've got enough room to get through there."

I wasn't getting angry, and I'm pretty difficult to intimidate through strange or aggressive behaviour. It entertains me, which sometimes unfortunately leads me to encourage it. I was amused, if anything, but keeping an agreeable tone and expression. After all, at this point this was a simple friendly, if inexplicable, misunderstanding. I repeated, "I'm not putting my car over the curb that's under that snow."

He responded so quickly that he cut off my last word. He still didn't make any threatening gestures of any kind, and didn't raise his voice. "You're a f***ing nerd."

I consider myself reasonably verbally adept, but I have to admit that I don't keep a ready retort for that level of witty repartee loaded up and ready to go. I just raised my eyebrows and looked at him for a second, trying not to break into laughter at this outburst from a grown man. I'm not sure how he was interpreting my non-reaction, but he seemed to puff up a bit in triumph and said, "You heard me. You're a f***ing little nerd." He looked very pleased with himself. He then got out of my car, walked back to his van, and backed up out of the way. I pulled out around him and laughed all the way home.

This incident made me realize that I have no idea how to handle random, unprovoked and disproportionate, but essentially harmless hostility. Even thinking about it now, there's nothing that I wish I'd said to him. That's rare for me; I normally want to rescript every conversation I have ten minutes afterward.

A couple of minor ideas occurred to me. For example, shutting my engine off and walking over to the attendant's booth to purchase a snack after he backed up would have been fun. However, most of my ideas wouldn't have been particularly funny, wouldn't have gotten any point across to this guy, and might have provoked him to escalate the situation. I got no indication that he might be violent, but you never know. If I'd deliberately pushed his buttons, he might have decided that his extra hundred pounds over me counted for more than my being fifteen years younger and tried his luck. (He almost certainly would have been right about that.)

I guess this is my question to ponder for today: how do you handle random people who are disproportionately hostile for no apparent reason? Until I think of something better (read: funnier), I'll go with mocking them on the Internet.

Now that I've had a day to contemplate this encounter, I think I realize what's so funny about it. It's not really the inexplicable hostility demonstrated by my visitor (and, boy, what a joy he must be to live with). It's the sheer absurdity of a grown man going out of his way to call another grown man a "nerd."

"Nerd?" Really? That's the best you can do? Come on, at least call me an a**hole. I could respect that. "Nerd" just sounds like we're fourteen and you caught me sitting at your table in the cafeteria. I have a hunch this guy has some unresolved issues from adolescence. His high school sweetheart probably dumped him for a guy who's pulling down six figures now running a software company.

As I presented one of today's many workplace performances of this bit, one of my co-workers pointed out that "nerd" wasn't even appropriate to the situation. Perhaps he was just making an unrelated observation.

My wife said this reminded her of a scene in Footloose (which I've never seen) where somebody calls Kevin Bacon a "pansy", and he responds with incredulity: "Who says 'pansy' anymore?"

Personally, I think "pansy" is a perfectly good thing to call someone if the situation warrants. But then again, apparently I'm a huge nerd.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the stuff my son got for Christmas, arranged differently than the first shot.


Anonymous said...

Here's the thing- you ARE a nerd. How many articles on computer repair and Magic have you posted here? It's okay, though- I'm completely geeking out about the Watchmen movie and the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica.

I bet that guy will be embarrassed when he reads about himself online.


RebelAngel said...

What is it about your personal appearance that gives people the clue that you are a nerd, even while sitting in your car at the pump?

Horn rimmed glasses? Pocket protector? Magic: The Gathering t-shirt?

Actually, I think he just tried to find a word to use as an insult. I would have attributed his use of "nerd" as a desire to not curse, but that can't be it, given his choice of adjective. Why go with something as lame as nerd if you have already made the leap to the f-word? I agree with you that a**hole would have been a more appropriate choice than nerd.

I think you intimidated him, actually, and he tried to cover it up by blustering.