Human after all

Yesterday, I had a very interesting confrontation with a white Ford Bronco full of preppy undergrads. There were four of them, all dressed in those ugly generic college sports clothes that jocks and fratboys wear when they aren't "going out" (tangent: this sort of sartorial extremism seems to characterize American undergrad life. Whenever I see the college girls on the streets, I'm always surprised by it-- they're either wearing ten pounds of stage makeup and full nightclub regalia, or the schlubbiest sweatpants and rattiest t-shirts imaginable, with very little middle ground. I wonder about the psychological impetus of this. Maybe it's that, when one is not "looking good," one wears anti-good-looking clothes to make sure everyone knows that one is not failing in the attempt to look good.)

At any rate, I was parked in a public pay lot, near UNC campus. The white Bronco was doing some strange maneuvering behind me, and I thought they were backing into a space, so I pulled out. Apparently, they weren't backing in, but preparing to move forward-- in pulling out in front of them, I had "cut them off." It was an honest mistake that a person with the slightest bit of self-knowledge would let pass, but our university system doesn't seem to inspire self-knowledge in its students, and well-to-do college undergrads are among God's stupidest, most brutal creatures. The driver made a "what the fuck" gesture with his hands. One of them, with dire predictability, yelled "faggot!" out of the window. I did what many of us might do in this situation-- I flipped them off.

This sort of confrontation isn't unusual where I live. Chapel Hill has a large population of well-to-do undergrads and a large population of effete anarcho-hipsters. Very little understanding seems to flow between these two groups, who regard each other, respectively, as boneheads and faggots. For a hetero guy, I get called "faggot" by people in moving vehicles with what seems an improbable frequency, and I figure that as long as rednecks and jocks keep calling me a faggot, I'm probably doing something right. So 9 times out of 10, I would have ignored these guys.

But for a couple reasons, I didn't want to just let it pass this time. For one, I simply wasn't in the mood to be fucked with by strangers - it's not really something you can take personally, but at the same time, it can make you feel sad about the alienating cultural scripts people lock themselves into. For another, we had this moment at the gate of the parking lot - with some dangerous driving, the Bronco I'd "cut off" managed to nose in in front of me at the exit gate. In this moment we were very close, and the driver looked me full in the face. Something passed between us, and I understood that these guys were not entirely comfortable in the roles they were playing for each other. In this instant I understood with utter clarity not only the obvious - that their pointless belligerence was a smokescreen for their insecurity - but the less obvious thing as well: that they were aware of it. The full force of their alienation from themselves and from anything resembling an authentic human existence hit me, and I felt very close to them. I felt empathy. I decided to follow them.

I'm not sure why I decided to follow them. I didn't really have a plan. I just wanted to continue the confrontation, a word that by now for me had shed its connotations and become more literal. I felt on the verge of a deeply human and illuminating experience with these guys, and I wanted to explore it further. I mean, there were four of them, and if it had come to a physical confrontation, solitary me would've been in a tough spot. But - and this is hard to explain, being mostly an intuition that I nevertheless didn't doubt for a second, such was its strength and clarity - in that moment at the parking lot gate when I locked eyes with the driver, I understood that a physical confrontation was not in the offing unless I escalated it in that direction, forced them into that stage of their cultural script. The uncertainty in the driver's eyes as he played his chosen role was a dead giveaway.

I didn't think I would actually catch up with them, having to stop and pay the parking attendent. But I did! I saw them parked at a stop light, waiting to turn left, and with no cars ahead of me in the lane, I was able to pull up directly beside them. Understand that in this moment I was compelled by a complex mixture of emotions, but anger was not among them. I realized that what I really wanted from this experience was to confront these guys with their own humanity, which they'd suppressed under a blanket of machismo but which I'd caught a glimpse of in the hesitancy of their performance, and I wanted them to confront mine. I wanted us to have, together, an unmediated experience, to go off-script and ad-lib for just a moment. So here's what I did: I pulled up beside them (my windows and theirs were down, and again, I felt very close to them), fixed my gaze upon them, and smiled. That's it. I don't mean to imply it was a kindness-in-the-face-of-cruelty type thing - it was not an entirely friendly smile, it was more of an "I have a secret you could never fathom smile," hovering implacably below my big, dark aviator sunglasses. I fixed them with this gaze, this smile, for the entire time we sat beside one another at the light (60, maybe 90 seconds), not speaking, not averting my gaze - just smiling, staring, silent.

And then, I watched them react. First, they noticed me, smiled mischievously and talked animatedly to one another. They all turned to look at me. At this point, the script would indicate one of two actions for me - I would be intimidated and sheepish, or aggressive and blustery. But I just looked, smiling, and the whole thing started to unravel. The two in the back redirected their gaze forward and didn't look at me again, even as they were driving away. The driver made a half-hearted "what's up wanna fight" gesture, but his face was so clouded by doubt that it appeared comical, and he didn't even finish it, sort of trailing off mid-gesture and looking forward again. Still sensing my gaze, he turned to me again and yelled, with a note of what seemed to be burgeoning panic, "What are you looking at?"

I smiled, impassive. Now here we were together in the burning heart of the thing. For the last 30 seconds or so of our encounter, they all stared straight forward, stiff and unspeaking, feeling my inexplicable gaze playing on their profiles. As I've said, I felt very close to them, especially in this moment when even their tentative bravado fell away and we all sat there, silently simmering in our identical biological processes, being humans interacting outside of the script. When the light finally turned green, it was like a bubble bursting. They made their left turn without looking back, and I gave their rear-view mirror a friendly wave, just to show them that there were no hard feelings.

I imagine that they slipped back into their script soon enough, but maybe for the rest of the day, it felt a little off. Maybe they wrote me off as some weird faggot among themselves, but thought about me later, individually, in the stillness of night. Maybe, from time to time, they'll think back to that weird guy who just smiled and stared, and intuit a world stranger, richer, and less scripted than the one they've chosen to adopt. Maybe, in the long run, I did them a favor, showed them the inkling of a way out of an alienating, constructed world that does not deliver what it promises. I like to think so. In retrospect, I only wish that I had taken off my glasses and let them see my eyes.