A Patriot

A man barreling his Jeep Patriot from the highway into a poorly designed parking lot entrance, which intersects with a walkway and has a marked pedestrian crossing area amid a confusion of car lanes, honked his ass off loudly in my ears.

I’d been about to step into the crossing, which is marked as such because it’s also the likely conflict area. But instead of him noticing a pedestrian (me) and allowing logic to guide him to a courteous stop, he decided to risk hitting me, as well as risk blowing out my eardrums.

So when he parked, I went over to chat. With assertion, not anger. Assessing him, I said, “Hey there, I appreciate the honking, but do you see my running shoes? When you see a pedestrian like me, I’m probably about to cross, aren’t I? When you see a person you need to slow down, stop, and wait.” I was figuring it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand driver courtesy, especially after the city police just did a crosswalk enforcement exercise in town this week.

But he wasn’t any kind of scientist. To turn his physical threat verbal, he said he was going to, and would have, “run me over.” Let that sink in: a driver coldly telling his fellow American that no, he didn’t intend to stop for them, even in a mixed use zone where speeding is a hostile action—he’d have actually hurt or killed them with his Jeep. This after already almost hitting me with it, which I generously took for ignorance or inattentiveness. In Oregon what he did, in the setting he did it in, is technically just reckless endangerment. That’s if he didn’t “intend” it.

I replied with a brisk offer to let the sheriff know his newly expressed intent, & he baldly encouraged me to do so. I fingered my phone, brought it up from my hip. He turned then and walked toward the grocery store entrance, shouting the whole way until he disappeared inside. At which point I photographed his car.

I happened to have my camera with a telephoto lens on me, so I took two quick photos while he was shopping. Then I found a spot to wait for a couple more when he came out. I didn’t want to forget what he looked like: eye glasses, 60s, going on 70. While waiting I suddenly thought of a man who works at that very grocery store, who greets customers and collects carts from the lot. He walks with a characteristic Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy gait. The prevalence of Limb-Girdle (LGMD) is said to be from one in 14,500 to one in 123,000. Statistics, huh? They’re so impersonal. Like, in 2019, 37% of pedestrian deaths among people 70 and older, and 23% of those younger than 70, were at intersections. Or like, 2 people in every 100,000 out walking will be killed with cars. So your chance of seeing someone killed at an intersection by a reckless driver (or even by a “normal” driver in an oversized SUV) is almost equal to meeting someone with LGMD. There it is again: the indifference of statistics.

Last weekend, I’d seen that employee arrive to work on a bus, which lets people out next to the garage. I paled when I thought of the Jeep Patriot driver honking at that man, or worse, running him over in the parking lot. I was, in a way, glad—glad’s not the right word, maybe just thankful—that I was the one the driver had decided to threaten, and not someone who can’t as easily jump out of the way of a flat-out assault. Thankful too that I was okay, of course, and glad I’d spoken up. I don’t always. But something made me this time.

YouTube caption: video is by John Graybill II, who has made a series of videos depicting his experience with LGMD

As Mr. Jeep Patriot drove his car out the way he came in, I zoomed in on him in the driver’s seat, his thin white arm casually propped against the driver’s side window as he waited for the person in front of him to turn onto the highway. His gray head jerked all around at the ground, as if he was noticing all the crosswalk markings he’d tried to honk away earlier. Perhaps it was the first time he’d ever seen them. After all, it IS just paint. Like I said, it’s a stupid way to design interactions between drivers of huge machinery and the human beings outside of it. Would we put our huge refrigerators on wheels, to drive rampant around our kitchens where people are hanging out?

Later, looking at the photos I took, I noticed the white stars of a folded flag on the dash of his vehicle.

Yeah. War is hell.

Hood of Jeep, with flag visible on the dash, idling inside a crosswalk

“Tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation,” —General William Sherman, 1865

“Sherman was wrong. I’m telling you I find peace is hell.”—President Harry S. Truman, 1945

Both views must be folded up tight on that Jeep’s dash. But is my sympathy for that man the answer? I’d only be imagining how his heart stays shredded at the loss of a son or daughter, a brother, or father. Even if it was years ago, he thinks about it every day. Every time he drives. Or is it this flag that he keeps on the dash, and the pride and pain he associates with it, that entitles him (I’m guessing he feels) to tell people in a public parking garage in a small American town how he’d willingly kill them with his Patriot, shredding yet more American hearts?

I wonder what whoever that flag represents to him would think about that. What they would say about who he’s free to do what to.

The thing is, when this sort of traffic conflict happens to you (as the person outside the car) it can continue to feel like an assault for quite a while afterwards, because it is an assault, spiritually speaking. And one that happened on home territory. But you too are a warrior, a soldier, a defender of peace, or you wouldn’t have said anything.

As I walked on, taking in the ocean’s negative ions, I thought. I thought about how to shake the sticky feeling, let it go, to not carry it around. It occurred to me that a person like that driver won’t be reformed with one incident. I used to run the mile relay, and the image of passing the baton came to me. It’s not a good feeling to be the one with the worst split of a race. But it’s teamwork. As long as I got that baton into the next person’s hand, there was still a chance. Each calm, steady voice telling that driver to slow down, to watch for people walking, will surely chip away at his hardness. I had to trust that as the tide smooths rock, waves of us saying, “We are here, stop your car” will clear the barnacles of his inhumanity. There’s nothing left to do but energetically pass the baton to the next walking warrior, who might get the apology next time. Or maybe even a yield. So keep your head on a swivel out there and Charlie Mike.

Ocean beach, with forested hills in the distance, some buildings, and people scattered on the sand. One man sits in meditation pose, facing the waves