A stranger in a green Jeep followed me home from the gym the other day. When I turned into our driveway, she pulled up in front of the house and rolled down her window. I thought she needed directions, or was stopping to check her phone, but when I turned off the car and opened my door, she called out to me.
“You just cut me off in that parking lot back there,” she said. “You pulled out, you weren’t even looking, and you almost hit me. And then you just drove off. Did you even know you did that?”
Nope. I did not.
Her voice was raised, but she wasn’t shouting. I was standing about two car-lengths away, so otherwise she might have been hard to hear. She didn’t curse, and she didn’t threaten me. I felt shaky and scared. And being scared made me angry, too, but only partly at her. I was also pissed-off at myself, and not for (allegedly) cutting her off, either.
I’m proud to be a New York ex-pat living in the Midwest. As a college student here, I decided my provenance had cachet, and milked that cachet whenever I could. Conversations with native Wisconsinites went more or less like this:
Native Wisconsinite, casually: Where are you from?
Me, just as casually: New York.
NW, less casually: Oh, really? Where in New York?
Me, more casually: New York City.
NW, not casual: Really? Cool!
Me, supremely casual: Well, the Bronx, actually.
(Spare me your outrage, Manhattanites. New York City has five boroughs, and the Bronx is one of those five. To my Midwestern friends, I apologize. I was a college student, desperately needing to impress. If you ask me now where I grew up, I will tell you I come from a lovely part of the Bronx that is 3 blocks from Westchester County. I fully disclose now, really, though you’re still free to make whatever assumptions you want.)
And there it was. From the Bronx. In New York City. New Yorkers are, ahem, mouthy, straightforward, no bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is. And people from the Bronx are, to a person, of course, New Yorkers who are also tough and intimidating (until you get on their good side). I was, and am, happy to see in myself all of those qualities.
I do possess those qualities, I suppose, but only when I’m among friends. Charming, right? If I’m comfortable with you, I will, as necessary, share my opinions, disagree with you, be pushy, and stand up for myself. (I will also almost certainly agonize, privately, over what I should and shouldn’t have said. That’s another story.)
If I don’t know you well or at all, though, and we’re face-to-face, I am non-confrontational and conflict-averse. The righteous indignation of which I am otherwise a font gets stopped-up. I’m not a complete pushover. The employees in the business office of our health insurance provider do, I think, quake when they see my name on caller ID. Or at least I hope they do. If you cut in front of me on line, I will call you on it. (Okay, this has to be said: Cashiers, I know you’re overworked and underpaid, but for heaven’s sake, you can’t just announce “Register open!” and let the chips fall where they may. That creates anarchy. What you mean to say, what maintains balance in the retail universe, is “Next customer on line!”) But I am much more easily intimidated than I should be. This is a pathetically first-world lament, but why the hell didn’t I point out, even gently, to the ludicrously cranky gym manager begrudgingly showing me how to use the circuit-training equipment that I had, in fact, made an appointment, that this was a service covered by my membership dues, and that it was reasonable of me to expect her to show me (again! Gasp! I asked for a review!) how to use the pec fly machine without her sighing audibly? Why did I instead nod politely after she’d gone through the motions of checking my form and then proceed to do the exercise wrong for several weeks?
I want to be better at standing up for myself—whether I’m right or wrong—in interactions with people who are not my friends or my family. I’d prefer not to feel threatened, but if I do, I don’t want to feel weak.
I want to be the kind of person who used a firm and authoritative tone to tell the woman in the green Jeep that the way to let someone know she’s wronged you automotively is not to follow her home and tell her off, but to use the horn or your middle finger. Both, if necessary. I am not suggesting that would have been the right thing to say, but it’s what I would like to have said.
Obviously, it was not what I said. Instead, I apologized. Several times. I even thanked her for bringing the matter to my attention—it nauseates me that I did that. Basically, I rolled over, then she rolled up her window and drove away.
It’s entirely possible that I did cut her off. I’m a fine driver, but when L asked me how hard driving is, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the hardest, I told her that when I first learned, it was a ten and now it’s a two, and it occurred to me that that’s when your driving gets sloppy—when it becomes easy.
Anyway, I’m still angry at the woman in the green Jeep, because what the hell? You seriously followed me home? Seriously? Who does that? Who does that in this town? Frown and shake your head and move on with your day like everyone else, yeesh. I’m also grateful to her, and a little jealous. The cop I married would be appalled at this, but I aspire to emulate her. I want to seek out confrontation in uncertain situations if there’s a stand I need to take.
I drive more cautiously now, especially in the gym parking lot. Just in case.