What Did I Do?

What Did I Do?

On a Friday while I was driving between hospice visits, a woman pulled up next to my car, and I saw in my peripheral vision that she was gesturing wildly. I turned to look. Her head moved violently from side to side, up and down. I assumed she was talking to someone on her phone—until our eyes met. The glare she gave me let me know she was so furious at me she was about to explode. She gave this one hand gesture that I surmised to mean (and I am cleaning up the language in case my mother reads this), “You idiot! How could you do something so stupid and dangerous? And that somehow caused me inconvenience?!” Something to that affect.

What did I do?

When I infuriate a driver on the road, I usually know why. Sometimes I cut someone off or forget to signal a turn or go too slow in the left lane, or something. My dastardly move is usually unintentional since I am a careful driver, although not always.

Once I was in a hurry and got frustrated by the slow traffic ahead of me. I identified the guilty car and when I finally passed them, I flipped them a gesture of which I am not proud, then as I passed by I realized they were having car trouble.


That crass misdeed was not unintentional but was stupidly premature, like the time I blamed my wife for losing something then later found it in the place I left it. (I’ve had to apologize often for that.)

Another time I changed lanes in front of a man driving a big truck after misjudging his speed. As soon as I got settled in front of him, I realized my mistake and, like a good Baptist, felt really badly about it. I assumed he was steaming mad for having to slow down, and I knew for sure he was when we came to a stop at a red light and he got out of his truck and came marching towards me. He was a good bit larger than me and had a determined scowl. I sensed that shrugging my shoulders and saying, “My bad” wouldn’t mollify him, so I locked my door, took out my phone, and called 911. I looked straight down at my phone and saw him out of the corner of my eye hulking outside the window. I guess he saw that I was calling the cops, and he returned to his truck.

When this woman was hollering and gesturing at me, I couldn’t think of anything I had done.

I drive a Prius, and I save gas by accelerating slowly, so maybe she got stuck behind me, and she was in a hurry. But I usually notice when someone is behind me, and I then accelerate normally—just to be a nice guy about it. I didn’t recall changing lanes, so I doubt I cut her off, and I wasn’t playing loud Springsteen with the windows down. I didn’t have any political bumper stickers promoting socialism or the slaughter of baby seals.

I continued on Duluth Highway, and she was just ahead of me. At the next red light, I stopped right next to her. She continued gesticulating and hollering at me. Man, I must have done something to really mess up her plans. I was thinking, “Lady, it’s the middle of the day. Traffic is light. You are now breezing along freely and could be far ahead of me if you wanted. How could I have possibly impeded your progress to go, oh, I don’t know, perform life-saving surgery?” Maybe she resented my gas-stingy hybrid. Maybe she works for Exxon.

I became curious about this woman, as I often am about strangers I see in public. Was she already ticked off at the world before I came along, and I was that one extra irritation that lit her emotional fuse and released her fury? Had there been a series of men who treated her poorly and here I was yet another one without a clue about women? And who thought he could do whatever the hell he wanted, forget the rest of you? When she arrived at her destination, would she be pleasant and sweet to everyone else? We all have at least two faces we present to the world.

We drove side-by-side for another few minutes then stopped at another red light. Her fierce harangue continued. By this time, I found her entertaining. I felt a little like I feel when I catch some of “The Jerry Springer Show”: voyeuristic, entranced, awkward, and relieved that it’s someone other than me who is caught doing something ridiculous in public. Just to make her burn a little more, I smiled and waved. Her hostile yin to my pleasant yang. I killed her with kindness.

Shouting behind the wheel in a car is common, they say. My daughter ratted out the mother of one of her friends by telling me that she curses madly when another driver makes a bad decision that inconveniences her. My daughter, who is no sweet-mouth angel all the time, wouldn’t repeat what she said. I know this mother only as an even-keeled, level-headed woman who seems, when I am around her, to take things in stride. But being behind a steering wheel can somehow turn the best of us into cursing maniacs. My daughter said this mother, after one of her tirades, calmly turned to my daughter and said, “Don’t repeat that.”

I can’t say I’ve never had a car tantrum. When I do, I’m usually alone (as was this woman who hated me), so maybe the isolation and the being-surrounded-by-protective-metal makes us feel like we’re in a fast-moving fortress and no one can reach us and what we say can’t really hurt anyone. They can’t hear us or smack us. Maybe the fact that we’re controlling a massive amount of weight and energy with hands and feet makes us feel extra powerful and invulnerable. Maybe it’s therapeutic to let it all out. Maybe our behind-the-wheel persona is like our typing-an-email persona: Since we’re not face-to-face and we’re at a safe distance, we feel freer to be a jerk.

(If you do this sort of thing too often and too excessively, you may have intermittent explosive disorder: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermittent_explosive_disorder, and you may need professional help.)

My arch enemy and I were side-by-side one last time. She had not relented one bit. We finally separated when she turned left and I continued straight, on my way to visit a patient in Duluth, and she continued…where?