November 1, 2009

An Undesirable Element


The sun had finally emerged early Sunday morning. Not that I was any big fan of the sun, but the rain of the previous several days was becoming tiresome. Before the strollered masses began clogging the sidewalks on their way to assorted pleasant family brunches, I grabbed a couple of envelopes off the kitchen table and headed up the street to the mailbox. Even that one-block walk can be a hairy one if I wait too long.

            A few minutes later I was standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change. I was in the middle of running through the lecture for next week’s class when someone next to me said, “there’s a trash can right over there.”

            Seeing no reason why such a comment should be aimed at me, I ignored it and continued waiting. Then the voice drew closer.

            “There’s a trash can right over there,” it said again.

            I finally half-turned to find a small, mousy-looking fellow in a yellow baseball cap. He’d apparently parked his stroller a few feet away in order to tell me where the trash can could be found. I said nothing, but raised an eyebrow in confusion.

            See, here’s the problem. When strangers speak to me, nine times out of ten everything they say sounds like a non-sequitur, or like we’d been having a conversation for the past twenty minutes but it was only at that moment that I started paying attention. This pointless little man was clearly talking to me, but I had no fucking idea what he was talking about. He looked upset about it, whatever it was—but upset in a meek, nervous sort of way.

            I was holding two envelopes—maybe he thought they were trash and he was trying to be helpful, not wanting me to waste my time walking across the street to throw them out over there. But they didn’t look like trash, so how could he mean that?

            “What are you saying, now?” I finally asked.

            “There’s a trash can right over there,” he repeated. His voice was quiet and scared, as if this was something his wife had put him up to. Then he turned and pointed past his stroller toward a point in the sidewalk I couldn’t see. That made no sense either, as I knew for a fact there was no trash can there.

            At last it hit me. He must have been referring to my recently-discarded cigarette butt, which lay smoldering somewhere on the curb.

            Oh, I see, I wanted to say, you’re just being an asshole.

            Instead I said, “So . . . you want me to put a smoldering cigarette butt in a trash can full of paper?”

He stared at me with his beady eyes shaded by his bright yellow baseball cap. “This is our neighborhood,” he told me. “We live here.” It was clear from his tone that he wasn’t including me in that “we” of his. In his (beady) eyes, I was an outsider. I didn’t belong there. Not anymore, anyway, and most certainly not among civilized people like him and his family.

            For a second I was tempted to grab his mousy little weakling arm and hurl him and his yellow baseball cap in front of the passing bus, but refrained. Instead I offered a chuckle and a shake of the head. The light changed, and I reached for another smoke as I crossed the street to mail my bills, leaving him and his failure behind me.

            What kind of fevered drive is it, do you suppose, that prevents people like this from minding their own goddamn business and letting me mind mine?

            Nothing the little twit said and implied bothered or surprised me in the least. I’ve run into pretty much the same thing wherever I’ve lived. But I must say, I’ve never run into the kind of passive-aggressive self-righteousness on such a wide scale as I have in the past two years. It used to happen here, of course, but it’s become an epidemic—almost a daily occurrence. I’ve literally had nice, smiling, tolerant liberal folk tell me without any qualms that I should leave “their” neighborhood. Apparently they took great offense over the fact that I not only didn’t have kids, but I didn’t care about theirs, either.

            What I mostly get these days, though, are the fake coughers.

            I love these people. Every day (and I mean that—every single day) when I run my errands and I happen to be smoking (which I always am) I get it. The person walking behind me or towards me will offer up the feeble but pointed koff-koff. Squinty eyes, hand over the mouth, everything. Sometimes they’ll make a big production of running to get past me and my evil, filthy cigarette, fake coughing all the way.


            Now, I ask you—what do these people really think they’re going to accomplish by this? Do they expect me to apologize and frantically snuff out a butt I’ve just lit? These things are expensive! Or better still, do they think their measly little fake cough will shame me into quitting? Far from it—not with free entertainment like that in the offing.

            Imagine, though, if causing some self-righteous offense really did force me to quit. What would be next on their list? The way I dressed? The way I talked? The fact that I was blind? (“You just make us . . . uncomfortable, so we’ve all decided we’d feel better if you just went away . . . ”)

            Can you imagine how their moral indignation would fly if I confronted them directly about their reckless stroller-pushing, or their abrasive cell phone conversations? But I don’t do that because I know how to mind my own fucking business.

            No, people like that useless doo-dad this morning and all those fake coughers need to realize that by inflicting their morality (or whatever you care to call it) on me and others like me, they’re just encouraging us to smoke more around strangers, and behave worse in general. If they want to try and go all passive aggressive on us, we’ll make it worth their while. As Morgan will testify, I can be one stubborn son of a bitch when I want to be.

            To paraphrase my former neighbor Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, if these people represent what it means to be human, I prefer to be subhuman.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.