A few weeks ago I rode my bike to Rainbow and parked near the temporary shopping cart enclosure; they are doing a major redesign and expansion. While I was locking up my bike, a woman returned a shopping cart, but instead of putting it in the enclosure, she just left it immediately behind my bicycle. I said, “Hey!”, but without tremendous force, and let her walk away.
A short, bare-chested, exotically decorated homeless fellow said gallantly, “I’ll help you!”, and moved the cart to its proper place. I thanked him, and he said, “My name’s J.R.” I told him my name. He said, “If you ever need help, I’ll be there.” I don’t plan to count on that absolutely—what if J.R. isn’t around when crisis strikes?—but was very touched by the sweetness of the sentiment, particularly given his own situation.
In contrast was the young lady driving a Mercedes convertible who attempted to pass me on 20th St. when there wasn’t time to do so before a red light. She ended up having to swerve into my lane, and I had to stop or be hit. I yelled “Hey!” for the second time that morning, this time with much more force, and she waved her index finger scoldingly in the air and said, “Buddy, you gotta pull over.” The lane there is nowhere near wide enough for a car and bicycle to travel side by side, so I was very properly in the center of it and responded, “That’s not the law. Learn the law.”
She had edged in front of me—maybe that was the most annoying part—so I was immediately behind her at the next light, and since she was in a convertible and theoretically available for conversation, I said, “If you’ve ever heard the expression ‘take the lane,’ that’s what it looks like.” She ignored me, so I added, “I have as much right to the road as you do,” and then the light turned green, and of course I spent the afternoon mentally rehearsing various speeches I might have made, some angry and some more professorial in tone, and now and then becoming explicitly aware of my thoughts and watching them vanish like the mirages they are. I would have done better, if I was going to spend the afternoon ruminating about the recent past, to think about J.R. and how much more excellent his character is than that of the convertible driver, at least going by the data I was able to gather, which I know is just a fraction of the whole.
I’m sure J.R. is a big jerk sometimes, like all of us, and I’m sure the Mercedes driver is in most situations a perfectly lovely person. I suspect she was having two thoughts that she didn’t recognize as just thoughts. One: “This cyclist shouldn’t be taking up the whole lane.” Two: “I really need to get to the red light ASAP.”
Nonetheless, I was struck by how the person who, in conventional terms, has nothing was so eager to identify an opportunity to give, while the person who evidently has so much, at least materially, was thinking only of what else she needed in order to be happy: to get to drive as fast as she wanted, to be first at the red light, etc. I suspect J.R. discovered long ago that acting in a kind and generous manner is a potent source of happiness.