I am running errands in Southampton Village, driving my Chevy Tracker on a Saturday Morning. This glorious late April day is full of sunshine and pink cherry blossoms. My adult daughter, Jennifer, visiting from her home in Massachusetts and her four year old daughter, Jolie, are along for the ride. One more stop at the bakery for those special chocolate cupcakes and then home to make lunch and celebrate my husband, Stan’s birthday. I am waiting patiently for the light to turn green when a black Mercedes sports car pulls up alongside of us in the right turn lane. As the light changes he doesn’t turn but swings around on my right. cutting in front of my car just as I step on the gas. His car is now dangerously close to my bumper.
In a flash of the bright sun on his chrome rear end, I lean on my horn. He didn’t take well to the horn and stops his car in the middle of the road as I pull into the parking lot of Tate’s Bakery. Just as I open my door to leave the car he rolls down his window to call me a name that isn’t quite clear, but I suspect it has something to do with my older age and a female dog.
I look directly at this black car that endangered my family. My face grows red hot. My mind is suddenly blank. In a shaky voice I shout back the only word that comes to mind, “A..HOLE!!!” At moments like this I long to be like that most eloquent of self-righteous woman, Julia Sugarbaker, who set the standard of expressing instructive anger on the TV show “Designing Women.” With a few moments of authoritative verbal deriding, she could turn an obnoxious ogre into an obedient puppy. Not me! When I reach the moment I must express anger it is usually the all encompassing, “A..HOLE!!!”
I think my daughter is telling me to calm down but I can’t really hear her. I barely hear him call me the second expletive that also had something to do with “old” and maybe “ugly.” This altercation is reaching its low point. As I turn around, I see my granddaughter Jolie”s horrified face. I take a deep breath and quickly turn towards the store. He steps on the gas, then stops again, and finally floors his gas pedal. The black car is gone with this man who needed to cheat to save five seconds.
The truth is that I am older and I know about the dangers of road rage. Before road rage became so ubiquitous and was given a name, my father unwittingly showed his family the horrors of road rage. I should know better but like my father before me my anger is not a matter of knowing. It is a matter of protection, frustration and personal violation. Above all, it is a matter of justice as he taught me to understand right and wrong.
Like me, my Dad appeared to be a calm, mild mannered person who was friendly and funny. He wanted to be liked by everyone. He seemed to like everyone until someone violated his passionate sense of right and wrong. On a sunny spring afternoon in 1953, my father, mother, seven year old brother, Barry, and I, then 12 years old, were on our way to Coney Island for some Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs followed by a walk on the boardwalk. After taking the long way around Shore Drive to see the view, we exited at Stillwell Avenue because Dad knew a shortcut through some back streets.
I had never been to this neighborhood. We were looking at the small houses and elaborate gardens when Dad stopped at the intersection for one of many stop signs along this remote route. After Dad looked both ways, he carefully edged forward into the intersection when a brand new white Cadillac seemed to mysteriously appear from an alley. He came within inches of hitting our 1948 green Dodge.
Dad rolled down his window. There was a lot of angry shouting of dirty words. The other guy got out of his car first. He seemed very big, at least as big as my Uncle Sam who was much taller than my Dad. Mom was yelling, “Julie get back in the car! Are you nuts? He can kill you!” Dad didn’t seem to hear her. He was very angry. His normally happy face was red as he shouted, “ You idiot! You could have killed us, jerk!!” He walked right toward that young thug. I don’t remember being frightened because I believed in my Dad and that it would all turn out OK.
I couldn’t quite see everything that happened next but I heard my mother yelling and crying, “Julie, oh my God! Julie!” Looking at my brother and me she sharply said, “ Stay in the car, don’t you move!” She got out to help my father who was now lying on the ground with a bloodied face. Soon I heard sirens. The police showed up first followed by an ambulance from Coney Island hospital. The other guy was back in his car. The police talked to him. My mother was crying too much to talk but she yelled over and over again, “ That big guy hit my husband in the eye with his glasses on! He blinded him! No, he killed him! HE KILLED HIM! ”
The man in the white Cadillac had thrown the first punch hitting my father in the eye, breaking his glasses leaving glass in his eye with deep cuts and lots of blood all over his face. The ambulance took him and the rest of us to Coney Island Hospital where my father was named a priority emergency and rushed ahead of the waiting crowd to surgery.
We waited in the emergency room with my mother who really needed a sedative. She couldn’t sit in her chair instead she paced from her chair to the nurse’s station and back again. On the way she told anyone who would listen, “ My husband will never work again. A big gangster punched him with his glasses on. Oh my god he will be blind now! He is a bus driver, so how will he ever work?” I never heard my mother willingly tell anyone that my Dad was a bus driver. Most people just smiled as they tried to get away from her. One old lady patted her arm. Mom was so nervous that she totally forgot about me and my brother. I was very frightened but I didn’t know what to do so I slouched down quietly in my chair, looking at all the people in the waiting room of this busy city hospital. My brother was calm and kept playing with his toy car. I told him what I really didn’t believe, “Everything will be okay!”
Mom was partially correct. It was a cold February day, a few days after Dad’s fortieth birthday, that he was finally able to return to work. Perhaps it was the “good” that is supposed to come from “bad” experiences that saved my father. The surgeon on call that day was not a rookie resident. It was Dr. Marcelle Arneau, a recent immigrant to the USA from France where he was a leading plastic surgeon. To practice medicine here he was required to serve a residency. With his skill and caring he saved my father’s eye.
Dad did learn a lesson but it is hard to change your beliefs and personality. He remained a self appointed protector of children and animals. His temper often flared at people who would hurt others but he kept cool on the road. No more direct confrontations instead he muttered to himself, “ you stupid jerk!” He was often generous to careless drivers by allowing them to make mistakes, “ oh he didn’t see that hidden stop sign!”
As for me, will I be able to control my anger during a another long summer in the beautiful beach resort of Southampton where so many narcissistic drivers believe they are entitled to make new road rules? Two images will help me put it all into perspective: My father’s mangled eye and Jolie’s horrified expression at seeing her raging grandma.