THE OTHER DAY this guy tried to kill me. Or anyway, he expressed an eager willingness to kill me.
Jen and I work out at the Y in Biltmore Park, a planned urban development (PUD) in South Asheville featuring upscale condominiums and bookstores and coffee shops- several acres of curtainwall and corrugated steel and textured concrete. In spite of the contemporary styling, there’s something nostalgic about Biltmore Park. Something Mayberry. Maybe it’s the Town Square©- a charming grassy quad with benches and saplings- or the fact that all the streets have names that sound like Celestial Seasonings herbal teas: Dayflower Drive, Bearberry Lane, Heathbrook Circle. Two-story photo advertisements on the facades of Barnes & Noble and Orvis provide a template of expectations for the place: affluent mature people, primarily but not exclusively white, in overpriced sports gear, enjoying outdoor fun with their (visiting from New England) grandkids. A little black girl blows bubbles with a bubble wand. A young stylish possibly Hispanic couple sips lattes, hand in hand. Biltmore Park screams old neighborhood simpler times clean lines modern convenience measured inclusivity.
But the ill-planned private roads in Biltmore Park are a puzzle. For example, the street out of the subdivision ends at a three-way intersection with a stoplight, but a few hundred yards before that is a casual four-way without signs or lights. People leaving from the back of the CVS on the left or the McDonald’s on the right- both of which front the main highway- have to merge into the heavy traffic to and from the subdivision, often causing brakes to screech, tempers to flare.
As we head towards the highway we see a pair of bewildered octogenarians in an SUV trying to exit the McDonald’s lot, sheepishly edging into the queue streaming out of Biltmore Park, and Jen pauses for a moment to let them go first.
A man in a red pickup roars up behind us and starts leaning on his horn. I flip him off. I glare at him through the back windshield and clearly enunciate FUCK YOU, too. Having just worked out, I feel a sort of temporary manly recklessness. He gets pissed off, guns his engine, pulls up next to us. We’ve started moving again but the pickup keeps pace, erratically swerving dangerously close, the driver’s face an angry blur of twisted mouth and dark mustache- is he wearing a snowflake toboggan?- as he yells at me through the window glass, his eyes black slots, shaking a fist. It’s odd, him yelling at me but not being able to hear him, just witnessing his mute expression of rage.
We’re in the left turn lane and the light’s green, but the line of cars in front of us slows for the turn. The man in the pickup slams on his brakes and jumps OUT of the cab, leaving his truck in the middle of the road. He starts running towards us, reaching out his hand to jerk the open passenger door, yank me out of my seat, beat me to a rosy pulp on the median, so I (pick one):
1.) Jump out of the car and kick his ass.
2.) Secure the door, and shout for Jen to gun it through the light.
It’s the second one.
Because I was afraid he might pull out a gun and shoot me in the head. It happens. Just a week before this, a man shot another man to death near the Pennsylvania state line. The unidentified driver of a dark Ford XLT pickup chased 28 year-old Timothy Davison down the interstate at high speeds finally nudging his SUV off the shoulder and shooting him in the head before driving off. Davison had called 911 repeatedly during the chase but had received no assistance.
A couple of days later a man was dragged from his car and beaten half to death by bikers on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. He’d accidentally nudged one of the motorcycles with his bumper.
It’s tempting to conclude that everything has finally, hopelessly, gone to shit.
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE IMAGINE WE KNOW IT
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Maybe you shouldn’t give people the finger if you don’t want them to kill you.” Fine. Fair enough. But I can remember a time, a greener time, when you could casually insult people and they wouldn’t try to kill you. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve flipped somebody off, or they flipped me off, and I yelled Asshole! and they yelled Fuck You! as they went roaring past- and we both lived to tell the tale.
Those were the days.
Now it seems people are more willing than ever to kill each other over trivial bullshit. The more insignificant the better. In recent years, murders have been committed over five to ten bucks, disputed parking spaces, chewing gum, X-boxes, hair-extensions, chopsticks, and- arguably most tragic- tickets to an Avril Lavigne concert.
But why? Is it Honey Boo-boo? First-person shooters? Beatboxing?
Are these end times?
Maybe the question should be why do we perpetually imagine there’s some sort of old order we’re deviating from?
FALSE EDENS, or LISTENING TO THE ELDERLY COMPLAIN ABOUT LINE-JUMPERS AT THE FISH-COUNTER IN HARRIS TEETER
There was once an era of manners and civility, found mainly in English novels and BBC miniseries. There was refinement: duets on the pianoforte and poetic recitations and portraiture. There were courtly dances, powdered wigs, carriage rides, string quartets, and petticoats- layer upon smothering layer of petticoats. Indolent bony-faced Anglo men in white V-neck sweaters played badminton as if wading through treacle, their blonde forelocks fop-curling down into sheep’s eyes. There were topiary gardens laid out in a variety of international styles where marble cupids with shriveled wieners poured cool spring water from vases into lily ponds teeming with oversize piebald goldfish. And croquet in the gardens in the afternoons and in the evenings . . . whist. Endless hours of whist.
But not anymore. You only want to order some sockeye, but that tattooed girl at the counter keeps helping other people first.
She’s doing it on purpose.
She’ll get hers.
ALL THE RAGES
In the late eighties, newscasters from KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles coined the term road rage to characterize a series of deadly freeway shootings. Since then there have been a litany of other rages added to the lexicon: air rage, bike rage, desk rage, computer rage, office rage, work rage, rejection rage, abandonment rage, etc.
Some psychologists now suggest that road rage is a verifiable syndrome, an impulse control disorder akin to Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED), which has nothing to do with incontinence, but which is typified by unpremeditated, disproportionately violent overreactions to minor provocations.
“More specifically, the adrenal medulla produces a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of catecholamines,” Wikipedia says, with an air of self-satisfaction, going on to explain that: “Rage occurs when oxytocin, vasopressin, and corticotrophin-releasing hormones are rapidly released from the hypothalamus. This results in the pituitary gland producing and releasing large amounts of the adrenocorticotropic hormone, which causes the adrenal cortex to release corticosteroids.”
A (fleeting) HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
I had my first fight in 6th grade with an Armenian kid named Gary Kuchunian. We’d been close friends until suddenly we weren’t. I can’t remember what we were arguing about, but for some reason we started “calling each other out.” Calling somebody out was suburban Pennsylvania pink kid slang for challenging somebody to a fight. In fact, what I mainly remember about fighting in middle school was kids calling each other out. Not many fights, but lots of kids balling their fists up and calling other kids out. Sometimes it actually came down to it- a time would be set, and there would be a punch up behind the shop building or under the bleachers- but it was rare.
Gary Kuchunian and I had been calling each other out by gym lockers and lunch lines for a couple of weeks, but it had begun to taper off. It was obvious nothing was going to happen. Then one day walking home from school I ran into him on the street and it started up again.
“Come on, hit me.”
“No, you hit me.”
My adrenal cortex released corticosteroids. My arm flew out. My fist met his cheek with a sickly smack, and in the subsequent slow motion jiggling recoil he flushed red and howled, tears welling up in astonished eyes. He ran away.
And I felt like the universe’s one true asshole. Which was surprising, because I’d entertained revenge fantasies about pounding the crap out of Gary Kuchunian for two weeks: punching him and knocking him down, straddling his ribs on the grass and beating his face to a pulp. Triumphantly restoring equilibrium to the world in a spray of blood. It felt good, fantasizing about it.
But the reality wasn’t anything like that. I had expected to feel relieved. I had expected to experience what psychologists refer to as the theory of catharsis. But I couldn’t rid myself of the image of Gary’s face as he ran away: a blubbering mass of hurt. I felt sorry for him. Then he told this larger, older friend what had happened, and then that guy started calling me out.
I found a new way to walk home.
REVENGE IS SACCHARINE
It turns out that my experience was not unique.
In a recent article by Eric Jaffe in Observer (the journal of The Association of Psychological Science) called The Complicated Psychology of Revenge, Jaffe asserts that there is no basis for the belief in the theory of catharsis. He cites a pair of studies, one from The Ohio State University and one from The University of Virginia, which demonstrated that test subjects allowed to take revenge felt higher levels of aggression than test subjects prevented from taking revenge. Those who had the opportunity to take revenge themselves ruminated longer on the inciting incident and their subsequent response than those who could not. “Those who don’t have a chance to take revenge are forced, in a sense, to move on and focus on something different. And they feel happier.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if the guy in the red truck had managed to pull me out of the car and kill me, he would have felt terrible about it. Also, that people would talk about what a great writer I might have been. Anyway, a telling finding from The University of Virginia study: people are bad at predicting how they will feel about things in the future. We think revenge will provide satisfaction, but afterwards we remain angry. From a psychological standpoint, revenge serves no purpose. It’s a “hormonal cascade,” a rush of chemicals flooding the brain, beyond our control.
GOING ALL DOSTOYEVSKY ON HIS ASS
Remember Kai, the Hatchet-wielding Hitchhiker? About a year ago, thousands posted a viral video of Kai in an interview shot just moments after he’d smashed a man over the head with a hatchet. According to Kai- laid-back, likeable twenty-something drifter wearing a bandana full of mossy dreads – while he was hitchhiking a man who gave him a ride had started making bizarre statements. He said “I realize that I’m Jesus Christ and that I can do anything I want,” just before running his car up onto the curb and hitting a pedestrian. Kai got out of the car to try to help the victim, who was pinned by the bumper. The driver jumped out and attacked an AT&T worker who happened to be there on the roadside. Kai pulled a hatchet out of his backpack and struck the man three times on the head. In the video Kai goes: “Smash! Smash! SuumMASH!” mimicking with his arm the swinging motion of the hatchet. The video met with widespread approval. Kai was a hero. Smash! Smash! SuumMASH! became an internet meme.
Here’s a smattering of adoration from the YouTube comments section:
Hatchet-wielding hitchhiker to the rescue!
Coolest homeless guy ever…
If you were in trouble you’d want a guy like Kai around. Somebody who saw shit going down and took action, selflessly and decisively. His dizzy, engaging personality reminded us of every stoner friend we ever had. He was the Jeff Spicoli of retribution. The video got four and a half million views, and people you would never expect to condone smashing somebody over the head with a hatchet were singing his praises.
People are fine with vigilante justice so long as it appears just.
When it came out that the man he had suummashed was mentally ill, Kai seemed slightly less heroic. And six months later when he was charged with murder in the unrelated hatchet slaying of a seventy-five year old man, he started looking less Spicoli and more . . . Raskolnikov.
Not so many people posted the video of that.
Traffic starts up again and Jen pulls away from the road rage guy, leaving him dwindling in the dusk. He runs back to his pickup, jumps in, kicks it into gear and speeds past us- still cursing and gesticulating- careens across two lanes of traffic and squeals out onto the highway, disappearing from view. Adrenaline pumping, we discuss self-defense classes, pepper spray, Tasers. Jen mentions the tripod in the back seat. Tempered steel. Possibly an effective cudgel. I imagine myself yanking it out and smashing it down on the guy’s head. “Smash! Smash! SuumMASH!” Killing the guy with a tripod.
I’d be an internet hero.
Then when the cops ask me why I did it say “I don’t know.” Haunted by the bastard in my dreams for the rest of my life, dead eyes staring at me, full of reproach.
Riding back home with this jumble of ideas, not knowing what if anything it means. We drive down Long Shoals and up Hendersonville Highway, past strip malls tarted up with fake second stories, gabled and ornamented, past the condo communities, names like country estates from bodice-rippers – Weirbridge Village and Crowfields and The Ramble- ill-drawn fantasies of a better life, a time of innocence just out of reach. The cultural narrative that the right wing of the Republican Party is so fond of, before manners went out the window.
Like in Norman Rockwell.
The idea of Eden is a manifestation of unconscious memories of the womb. I might have stolen that from Jung. The womb is a walled garden, and when we are born we are cast out into the world. Every generation yearns for a return to the garden in the time before the snake came. The Golden Days idea is similar to the Eden idea: there was a time when everything was better than it is now. All around us we see the corruption, the ugliness, and we sense on some primitive level that it wasn’t always like this. And it wasn’t. For some time we floated, all of our needs satisfied, in an amniotic sac, while the regular rhythm of a beating heart lulled us to exquisite sleep, to beautiful dreams of perfect bliss.
Jen and I witness a couple other displays of semi-murderous intent on the way home: one woman cuts another off and they shout at each other, flip each other the bird; an elderly couple merges too slowly, horns blare. Drivers, harried and hassled, shake their fists and shout from behind the glass. They turn into the parking lots of specialty markets where they purchase rare delicacies fit for nobility, clotted cream and crumpets, lamb chops imported from ancient farms in Sussex. They pull through Tudor-style gatehouses into the lots of cheaply-made imaginary English villages, park and go inside and watch Downton Abbey, crank it up loud so they can’t hear the angry automotive roar of civilization through the pink placental Husqvarna sheathing that embraces them, a people suspended between what they aspire to be and what they are, between nostalgia for imaginary lives and the inexplicable brutality of their darker selves.