Monday, January 5, 2009

Road Warrior

You see a lot of strange things on the roads, even if you're just walking next to them. The strangest such thing I ever saw happened when I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh.

Class had let out and I was walking down Forbes Avenue in the middle of campus, lost in the fog that academics often encounter when confronted with the real world. I like that fog - it's home. Forbes Avenue is a major road - three or four lanes of one-way traffic leading out of the downtown - and it is always busy. And when classes let out at Pitt, even the sidewalks are busy. There were, quite simply, a lot of people about.

But I paid them no mind, until it gradually dawned on me that I was following an argument.

About ten or twenty paces ahead of me was a frat boy - maybe 6'1", 220 pounds, bodybuilder type, the sort of guy who would guard the keg at those interminable rat mazes they insisted on calling "parties." He was jawboning with a guy in a Yugo, a couple of lanes away and roughly keeping pace with all of us pedestrians in the heavy traffic. You couldn't see much of that guy except his head - which was roughly the size of a basketball.

This, it turned out, should have been a warning.

By this point more than a few of us on the sidewalk had begun to pay attention, particularly as the argument began to take on racial overtones (the frat boy was white, the driver black). But we all kept moving forward. We had lives of our own to attend to, after all, and they didn't include either of these two jokers.

But street theater has a momentum of its own and makes its claims on its audience whether they will or no. It was at that point that the frat boy made his fatal mistake. In response to some comment made by the driver, he retorted, "Why don't you come over here and say that?"


That guy threw that Yugo into park so hard it bounced. The door flew open. And then this mountain of a man just ... unfolded ... out of that car.

And everything - traffic, pedestrians, even the birds in the air - stopped dead. That sudden pause is the one thing that stands out most in my memory of this whole event. It was a rent in time, where the past and future had collapsed into a present so intense as to foreclose all notion of there ever being another moment besides this one. It is a sensation I have felt only rarely in my life, and never in a public setting except for this time. It was zen-like in its centeredness.

For those of you too young to remember Yugos, they were small. Very small. You could fit one in the glove compartment of a modern SUV with room left over for two cupcakes. To this day I have no idea how that man managed to squeeze himself into that car, and even less of an idea how he managed to drive it. For all I know he had removed the front seats entirely and was sitting in the trunk.

This man must have stood about 6'8" and easily weighed 350 pounds, all of it muscle - there wasn't enough fat on his body to fry an egg. He crossed two lanes of traffic in maybe three steps, picked up the frat boy with one hand and flung him against the wall of the nearest building, some fifteen feet away. And at that point you could almost see the thoughts as they flashed across his mind: "Is it worth the trouble I'm going to get into to kill this guy?"

It was a narrow thing, in the end, but he turned around, folded himself back up into his Yugo, slammed it into drive, and took off.

The city of Pittsburgh collectively exhaled.

And we all began moving forward again, picking up right where we left off before this happened. As far as I know that frat boy is still cowering against the wall of that building.

What's your road story?

No comments: