I don’t know what to do when a car is coming at me.
Of course, I know to step out of the way if they’re gunning for me; I would make a really ugly hood ornament. But that hasn’t happened in a long time; I’m not as abrasive as I used to be, and fewer people are upset with me. These days, only a few people want my blood, and they work for the Red Cross.
I live on a quiet country road and I like to walk. Traffic is usually light, but still, quite a few times over the course of a walk, I will find myself facing down an oncoming vehicle. It’s nothing, really. I’m walking on the shoulder that’s about 15 inches wide and a couple of tons of metal barely misses me by a few feet while moving along at 70 mph in a 45 mph zone, but it happens all the time. I’m used to it.
Anyway, the problem is not avoiding a collision. The problem is social and it’s deeply rooted in the Southern understanding of good behavior: should I wave to people as they drive by me?
Even asking the question, I feel silly. Ninety-nine percent of the drivers will be strangers who could care less. One percent will be people that I know who probably couldn’t care less — probably.
But … have you ever had this conversation?
“Hey, stuck-up! You’re not speaking to me anymore?”
“Hey … umm, what are you talking about?”
“I waved at you yesterday and you didn’t wave back! You think you’re better than the rest of us?”
“Ummm, I don’t remember seeing you.”
“You were in the yard mowing grass. I drove right by you! How could you not see me?”
“I’m sorry, I must not have recognized you,” as you drove by at 70 mph in a 45 mph zone with tinted windows and I was looking down at the rose beds that I was trying not to obliterate.
“How could you not recognize me? I was in my car!”
My car. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who automatically can recognize someone just by seeing their car, and those who cannot. I belong to the latter group. I have automobile amnesia; I cannot remember what a particular individual’s car looks like. As a result, I have had this conversation many times when I would go to work, or to a coffee shop, or any place where people gather:
“Is So-and-so here?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.”
“Well, look in the parking lot and see if his car is here.”
“I don’t know what his car looks like.”
“What? How could you not know what somebody’s car looks like? That’s like not knowing what their face looks like. Anyway, So-and-so drives a …”
A detailed description of So-and-so’s car would follow, complete with color, year, make, model and ending with some particular detail: “And his right front tire is getting bald and needs replacing.”
By then, I feel like I’m getting bald and I need replacing. So people conclude that I’m either stupid or unwilling to help. Naturally, I play stupid, because no one wants to seem unwilling to help. That would go against the Protestant work ethic.
I wonder if expecting to wave at everyone goes back to roots of small rural communities. In that setting, everybody knows everybody, so anybody who walks or drives by your house is probably someone you know. So you wave. If you don’t recognize them, you still wave, because maybe the sun was in your eyes and you couldn’t see, and it really was someone you know, and now they’re offended if you did not acknowledge them, and we’re back to the “Why didn’t you wave back to me?” discussion.
Obviously, it’s safer to wave at everybody. If a stranger thinks you’re crazy, so what? They’re gone in 60 seconds. But if a neighbor thinks you’re putting on airs, you have to deal with it, and it’s not going to be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
So I have revived an ancient ritual: the tip of the hat. The practice is as old as hair falling out and guys like me trying to disguise the fact with headwear. But it covers a multitude of sincere intentions.
As I walk, a car approaches me, at 70 mph or so. Just before it gets even with me, I reach up and tip my hat ever so slightly. If you are somebody that I know but didn’t recognize, you feel that I have acknowledged you. If you are someone I don’t know but that feels that pedestrians should wave at everyone who passes, you will feel that I have acknowledged you. If you are a total stranger you won’t care. You just saw a guy adjust his hat, that’s all.
I know, it’s a strange way to deal with oncoming traffic. But if you can come up with something better, my hat’s off to you. Don’t let the glare blind you.