I pulled alongside the gas pump and shifted my car into park. There was another gas pump just ahead of me, but there was a yellow plastic bag around the pump handle, indicating that the pump was not functioning.
I began pumping gas.
The man in the pickup truck parked behind me had pulled into the station at the same time as me. He glared at me through his windshield. I could feel his glare on the back of my head. A moment later, he stepped out of his truck and inquired as to why I had not pulled ahead to the next pump.
His inquiry was shouted at me. It contained profanity. The man was angry.
I remained calm. This is one of the things I do best. These moments are made for me. I said, “Today is your lucky day.”
“Why?” the man asked, still shouting.
“The pump up front is broken,” I said, motioning to the yellow bag on the pump handle. “That’s why I didn’t pull forward. And you just learned not to start a conversation by shouting at someone and swearing, or you might look like an idiot. Your lucky day.”
The man shouted some more. Swore some more. Climbed back into his truck. Backed up. Drove to the pumps on the opposite side of the station.
This should’ve been the highlight of my day, but even before my wife expressed with disapproval for my actions, citing the possibility, however unlikely, the the man could’ve shot, stabbed, or run me over with his truck for being a wise ass, I felt the unease in my bones.
Ten years ago, this moment would’ve been the highlight of my day. Maybe my week.
But I, too, knew about the possibility of escalation as I was spouting off to the man. Maybe not instantly, but soon enough. As I fired off my clever and self-satisfied quip, I thought about my family. I saw their faces in my mind.
The thrill-seeking instigator that my mother called me for much of her life reveled in my quick-witted retort.
The sober, more calculating father and husband recognized my actions as unnecessary and possibly dangerous. The chances of genuine danger were exceptionally low. People may say otherwise, but these are people who extrapolate sensational news stories and assume the world is going to hell and a hand basket.
In truth, violent crime rates (and crime rates in general) are lower today than ever before.
But when you have a wife and two children (not to mention a crippling fear of death), even exceptionally low probabilities are best avoided.
My first novel, Something Missing, is about an exceptional and benevolent burglar who doesn’t want to end his life of crime simply because he’s so good at it. He takes pride in his work. He wonders if he might be the best burglar on the planet.
It’s incredibly hard to quit something that you are so naturally inclined.
I’m at my best in these moments of confrontation. My tendency to remain calm regardless of the circumstances, combined with my ability to rapidly formulate retorts and my willingness to hit below the belt make me highly effective in these scenarios.
Allowing a stupid man shout and swear at me for not pulling ahead at a gas station without firing back seems ridiculous to me. Cowardly. Neutered.
Shakespeare said that discretion is the better part of valor, but what is often forgotten is that these words are uttered by Falstaff, who is pretending to be dead lest he find himself risking his life in battle.
Falstaff is saying that the best part of courage is caution, which Shakespeare meant to be a joke. Truly courageous people may be cautious, but caution is not the most important characteristic of courage.
Discretion is not the better part of valor. Discretion is boring. Discretion stinks.
I prefer King Henry’s battle cry instead:
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger. . .
Then again, King Henry was trying to inspire his soldiers during their invasion of France. An idiot at the gas station may not compare well to an intercontinental war between Europe’s two greatest powers.