There is a loop in a park here where one half of the road is set aside for walkers, runners and other humans not in cars. The other half of the road is for cars, so it is a one-way drive around the loop. It’s a lovely walk or run through one of my favorite parks, so I go there as often as possible. Here is what happened the other day:
I was walking around the 2 1/2 mile loop, and since it was a warm day after about a week of deep freeze, so were lots of other people. Shortly ahead of me was a guy who was going for a run. He slowed down towards the top of one of the long hills on the loop, so I caught up within a few feet of him. This was near a parking area. One car pulled out of the parking area and started to slowly drive on the side of the road meant for walkers/runners and whatnot — as if this was still a two-lane, two way road. The man ahead of me scooted out of the way. he made a rude gesture at the car and glared at the driver as she slowly rolled past him.
As I walked up to the car, the woman in the passenger seat rolled down the window and asked, “Excuse me ma’am, is this a one way street?”
I said, “Yes. It is.”
The woman thanked me warmly, and the car slowly turned to the right direction as I continued to walk. When the car passed me again, going the correct way this time, she thanked me again and waved.
Just another random encounter, but I kept thinking about it. Finally I think I understand why. This small moment, this seemingly throwaway encounter, illustrates in microcosm a larger problem which we see the results of every day. This problem of our divisions, and the cruelties (small and large) we inflict on each other because of them.
Kentucky is a largely rural state, with a few larger cities. I live in the largest metropolitan area of the state. I have heard it called the “blue bubble in a red sea.” This one small moment in the park illustrated, for me, the ways we fail to understand each other and therefore miss opportunities to really communicate.
The people in the car were visiting the city. The county on their license plate was one in the eastern corner of the state, in the mountains. The man who was running saw them only as an annoyance, an obstacle to his pursuits. What I did was not especially kind or unique. I will admit I was a little annoyed at first too. It only took a moment of openness to answer a question, human to human. At the time, I felt a little embarrassed by what I saw as the woman’s excessive thanks. Later, it made me wonder if their “city” experience had been so full of harshness that a polite exchange seemed so special.
See, I know some smart people. And some of these smart people have shaken their heads in confusion and wonder at the “backwards” nature of some of “those people out there.” Meaning, usually, people who live in rural communities, or people whose politics are different, or people who are mistrustful of intellectuals. I have been guilty of this myself.
This one small moment in the park brought it home for me, though. If you were a person whose contact with “big city” or “intellectuals” usually involved someone glaring at you, making rude gestures, talking down to you and in other ways making fun of you for your lived experience — well, wouldn’t you learn to mistrust intellectuals too?
There are complexities and layers and oceans of social and economic factors that put each of us in the lives we have now. Our differences are legion. But our sameness is still there.
It only took a moment to speak politely to someone who just had a question about the way things worked in an unfamiliar place. It only took a second to be nice. I know I didn’t change the social and political landscape of anything, but maybe I helped change some one’s mind about the city. I hope I did, anyway. And I hope we can all take every moment to let go of labels and just be nice.