Most every morning on my trip to work, rather than get off at the subway stop about four blocks from my office, I get off at the stop about two miles away and walk from there. I do the same thing in reverse in the evening when I leave work. Walking those couple of miles at the beginning and the end of the day helps me to clear my head. It’s an enjoyable walk through several neighborhoods.
The walk in the morning is generally quieter. There’s the silver food truck set up every morning by 6 a.m. to sell coffee and breakfast sandwiches to the contractors working on some major building projects. Lots of people in medical scrubs are heading off to a morning shift or heading home after a night shift. In the evening, there’s much more activity. After 7 p.m., restaurant diners are sitting at outside tables if the weather permits. The sidewalks are packed with people heading home or heading out for the evening.
One particular site caught me by surprise on a walk home a few days ago. A car was double parked in the bicycle lane of a busy main street, covering half of the bike lane. The driver was nowhere in sight, but there was an older woman in the passenger seat and some kids in car seats in the back. Given the substantial bicycle traffic in the evening, double parking was clearly thoughtless, annoying, and illegal. The unexpected event was when a cyclist, a well-dressed man with a gray goatee in what looked to be his early 50s, saw the double-parked car, turned his head to it and spit at the car’s window as he passed. He then pedaled on up the road.
My first thought was: “Really? Is this how we respond to inconveniences now? By spitting at them?” Granted, the car parker was wrong, but there was still plenty of bicycle lane in which to pass. My second thought was to wonder if this was yet another indication of who we are, a nation of spitters at the things we don’t like.
But on the rest of the walk, I also saw people in a local church hand a bag of food to someone on the front steps. I saw someone else help a distraught stranger navigate his way into parallel parking into a tight spot. There was a guy taking some books out of a canvas bag and placing them onto a shelf in one of those tiny free libraries. And I remembered that earlier in the day, I received an email from security at work letting me know that a cafeteria worker had turned in my wallet which had apparently fallen out of my pocket.
A pessimist might witness the spitter and let that define his view of the world. An optimist might see those other things and more like them that happen daily and have that determine his worldview. I prefer to believe that there is a healthy blend of good and bad behavior surrounding us daily and the right thing is to do our best to act out of kindness with grace even when we feel like spitting. But please don’t block the bicycle lanes.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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