Life Lessons from a Cranky Old Man
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve told sad stories. So today, I’m going to mix it up and tell a good old-fashioned Tale of the Strange and Bizarre, 100% true (like all the stories on this site) and chock full of valuable life lessons for your enjoyment and edification.
Proving once again that life’s most important lessons can arrive from its strangest experiences, I now present to you my trip into the Twilight Zone.
Cue the music. Doo-doo Doo-doo Doo-doo Doo-doo.
I made a lot of bad decisions that day. The decision to walk home from work during a near record-breaking heat wave was one of them.
At the time, I weighed close to 300 pounds. I was wearing a big yellow T-shirt and black khaki shorts, and I must have looked like a bumble-bee, big and round and walking down the street in the hot afternoon sun, sweat streaming down my face, my shirt sticking to my back like a plastic sheet.
When I reached the end of the block, gasping for breath, I wiped my hands through my hair, first looking left, then right. To my left lay my usual homeward trajectory, a half-hour hike through a subdivision of boxy 1950’s homes with clean, white wooden siding and small square windows. In the opposite direction lay a vacant lot, marching off toward the creek in a flurry of knee-high bramble and weeds.
If I cut across the lot, I could be home in 10 minutes. But would I be able to cross the creek? And who owned this lot anyway? And why was this lot empty when the rest of the lots in this subdivision had been planted with houses for 50 years now?
The vacant lot was nestled between two houses, seeming to belong to neither. There was no fence screaming NO TRESPASSING. There were no guard dogs or watchmen warning me away. There was just the black asphalt curb at the end of this peaceful suburban street and the beckoning tangle of weeds beyond.
I stepped over the curb.
Yep, I made a lot of bad decisions that day. But hands down my worst decision was the one that led me into that field.
I was halfway through the field, fighting tall weeds, when I heard a small voice carrying on the wind. I looked up and saw an old man, crouched in the shadow of a crab-apple tree along the side of his crackerbox house, staring at me. To be honest, I couldn’t be sure if the old man was staring at me, or merely in my general direction.
And when I say he was old, I mean he was ancient. Maybe 90. Maybe 105. A wife-beater T-shirt hung over his shoulder, leaving his wrinkly white belly exposed. He put one hand on the hood of his rusted 1973 Chevelle Malibu and yelled something I couldn’t understand.
I looked behind me and all around. Was he talking to me? I thought about shouting something friendly like, “Hello mister,” but that seemed foolish because he might have been yelling for someone inside his own house or backyard instead of yelling at me, and if I started yelling back at him, I might catch the poor old guy off guard.
I stood motionless, weeds rubbing my bare legs, watching the old man for any gesture or sign. Then he turned away, toward his car. I saw something flash silver in his right hand, maybe a socket wrench or pair of pliers. Okay, so he must have been working on his car, and he had probably been calling to someone inside the house for assistance.
The creek was close now, a few steps away. And that’s when I noticed the old man’s car, smashing through weeds as it came, kicking up dust. I froze, and it’s a good thing I did, because otherwise the old man’s Malibu would have crushed me. The car skidded to stop between me and the creek. There might have been 8 inches clearance between the driver’s side door and my yellow-shirted belly. I couldn’t see how close the old man had come to putting his car in the creek, but he couldn’t have missed by much.
Now his wrinkly cue-ball head was jutting out his open window, his fist shaking and saggy arm flapping. “Is this the way you respond to your elders, boy?!” the old man screamed.
“What?” I said.
“I was talking to you, boy. Is this the way you respond to your elders? Just walking away from me like that?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize.”
“You’re sorry?” he screamed, opening his toothless mouth in a grimace. “I’m tired of you punks cutting across my field. You dirty no-good punks.”
Somehow this old man had confused me with some wayward pack of 11-year-old boys who apparently had made a career out of cutting across his field. If I’d been feeling peckish, I might have suggested he put up a fence or maybe a NO TRESPASSING sign, but I felt sorry for being here without permission, so I kept my mouth shut.
And let’s not forget, this guy had nearly run me over. And in the movies, don’t guys like this always have a shotgun sitting in the passenger seat? What if that flash of silver had been a Smith and Wesson?
I stepped around the back of his car (noticing the glittery Confederate flag sticker in his rear window) and peered down into the creek. If the slope had been gentler, I would have been down to the water and up the other slope before the old man could have stopped me. But too steep it was.
“Sir,” I said, my voice very small, “I didn’t mean to offend you. If you’ll just let me pass, I’m going to go back to the street now.”
Behind me, I heard the car shift into gear. Fear twisted in my gut. Did this guy really intend to run me down?
His Malibu pulled alongside me, and he screamed, “You get off my property, son. This ain’t your place!”
And then he began to babble a stream of insults, lunatic in pitch and cadence, words running together, impossible to understand, jettisoning random words like so much flotsam, and somewhere during his tirade came a series of racially motivated insults about the “black kids” and “Mexican kids” in his neighborhood who wouldn’t stay off his grass.
My adrenaline was pumping, my fists clenched. But he was an old man, probably half-crazed, so I was going to walk peacefully back to the street and continue on my merry way without saying a word. At least, that was the plan until the old man decided to fetch his son.
And his dog.
A young man appeared on the porch then, lanky and dirty with long red hair, all bones and hard angles. He was wearing the family uniform, a wife-beater T-shirt and motor-oil-stained blue jeans, and he was holding a leash attached to the thick meaty neck of a rottweiler. Now the old man exited his car and The Unholy Trinity (Father, Son, and Big Mean Dog) started toward me.
“Listen, I was just trying to get home,” I said.
“Well, this ain’t the way,” the young man said. “Now you go on and get out of here before I turn my dog on you.”
I looked at the old man and saw he was grinning a big, toothless grin. The younger guy was grinning too. And the dog (even the dog!) seemed to be grinning. And that was just about the last straw. All of that adrenaline pumping through my body went straight to my brain.
“Take a good look at me, will you?” I shouted, motioning to my bright yellow shirt. “Do I look like I’m on some secret ninja mission to destroy your property or steal your car?”
I saw something on the young man’s face. It might have been fear.
“If you *really* wanted me off your property, you’d have just let me keep walking,” I said, and I was sure my face must have been turning red. “My question is what the heck are you guys hiding out there?”
Right or wrong, I suddenly became sure this guy didn’t want to release his dog on me. If you let your dog loose on someone, the cops are going to show up. And these two guys didn’t seem like the sort of people who wanted the cops sniffing around their vacant lot.
The young man grinned and said, “Well, I don’t guess you’ll be coming around here anymore. I guess we’ve accomplished that.”
“True enough,” I said. “This place is all yours.”
“I think you need to leave,” the young man said, tightening his hold on the leash. The rott, on the other hand, seemed completely disinterested, as if he’d seen this particular scenario a hundred times and had grown bored of it. In my mind, I could see the man letting go of the leash and the dog just sitting there with his tongue hanging out, wondering what all the fuss was about.
But in the end, I did what most people would have done: I walked away.
There was a moment when the ending of this story had the potential to get a lot more interesting, a moment when my sympathetic nervous system was in high gear, but even then I was smart enough to know I’d already done and said too much, and that if I kept pushing my luck, it might just run out.
So let’s review the life lessons in this weird little tale, shall we?
1) Avoid being unnecessarily confrontational: These property owners and I skated a thin line that day. If they’d wanted to hurt me, my outburst could have cost me. And likewise, if I had been some deranged psycho, their knee-jerk defensive response could have cost them. No, I don’t expect all of us to start living in fear of lunatics, I’m merely suggesting that a friendly smile and a helping hand is a good way to handle most difficult situations. If you can help it, be nice to people, not merely because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the power of being nice is well documented. What comes around really does go around.
2) Listen to your intuition: In 2005, Malcom Gladwell wrote an excellent Book called Blink that’s all about the power of intuition, thinking without thinking, quickly figuring out what’s important and acting decisively. If I’d read Blink prior to walking home from work that day, I might have heeded my intuition, which had warned me not to walk across that lot in the first place. Bottom line? Do not discount your first impression.
3) If you don’t like where you are, leave: That old man was apparently bitter about the state of his neighborhood. And maybe he couldn’t afford to leave, but that’s not really my point. My point is that if you stay someplace that’s dragging you down, you can either change your outlook, leave, or allow your mental outlook to deteriorate. Staying where you are without changing your perspective is a sure way to end up in a huge psychological rut.
4) Mind other people’s boundaries: Truth be told, my Momma raised me better than to walk across some guy’s yard without permission, and looking back, it’s clear that I shouldn’t have been so willing to make assumptions about who did (or didn’t) own that lot. And this lesson applies to more than property; it applies to life in general. If you have any reason to believe that your actions will offend somebody specific, it’s often worth the time and effort to ask.
I don’t really know why the situation deteriorated the way it did, why the old man was so angry and why I had decided to cut across his field to begin with.
What I do know is that he was one very unhappy man, perhaps frustrated at having been left behind by his neighborhood.
This was a middle-class suburban neighborhood populated mostly by young professionals who wear Dockers and button-down shirts to work, and yet here were these two men and their dog, remnants of some long ago neighborhood which no longer existed, refugees from a Confederate ghost story.
That old man had probably lived in that house for a long time. I could imagine him sitting on his porch at the age of twenty, watching as bulldozers turned the farm land into houses, and many years later I could imagine him arguing with the county police when they ordered him to remove the rusted-out cars from his side yard, and later still when the neighborhood became ethnically diverse and packs of children from different parts of the world started playing in his lot. I could imagine him getting smaller and smaller as the world grew bigger and bigger.
Or maybe the old guy was just having a bad day. I don’t really know.
What I do know is that I made the right decision by making my exit, opting to leave this ghost story before I could become a part of it. And as I walked away, I listened for the sound of the dog, but that sound never came, and pretty soon I was alone with my footsteps, taking the long way home.
March 18, 2008 Tuesday at 8:22 am