Flareup in the Food Line
A Symptom of our Times

Donna Britt, The Washington Post Writer's Group

It was lunchtime in Los Angeles. The man, about 35, was standing in a long, slow line. he had a choice: bolt to the head of the new line, placing himself before the person ahead of him - a pale, fiftyish woman immersed in a newspaper - or inform her of the new line.

He tapped the woman's shoulder. "Excuse me," he said. "That line's open."

Immediately, she slid into the space. Then she looked at him.

"Don't you poke me!" she hissed.

Staring at her, "I felt total, consuming anger," he later recalled. "In that split second, you have a choice between 'Am I going to go off, or handle this like a gentleman?'"

He chose. And hissed a common expletive used primarily toward women right back at her.

"What did you say?" the woman asked.

Repeating it, he angrily added, "I was trying to call your attention to the fact that another line was open. And here you give me your attitude."

The woman repeated, "Don't you poke me."

She turned away. Staring at her back, the man saw that she was shaking.

In a split second. Within that infinitesimal pin-dot of time exists a space immense enough for whole lives to be won and lost. In that moment, choices both momentous and mundane are made.

In Los Angeles three years ago, it was in such a space that some cops who could have chosen otherwise decided that a drunken, unresponsive man should be beaten senseless; that a year later men, woman and children - who'd seen the videotaped bludgeoning and expected the police to be punished - went collectively crazy when they were not.

In these times, either the woman or the man at the McDonald's could have had a gun and used it. Shootings have occurred over less. Instead, each ordered lunch and left - she, perhaps, with her thoughts of past pokings; he with rage, and sadness at the memory of her trembling shoulders.

Neither, I suspect, really heard what the other was hissing.

Days later, the man - a soft-spoken writer known for his humor and sensitivity - was still stunned by his reaction. "I'm not at all proud," he said. "Everyone deserves respect, even people being rude to you."

So what happened?

"After a while, you get tired of being nice," he said. "Sometimes I feel I'm the only one who's giving."

Who doesn't? Who among us hasn't suddenly been confronted by an act of jaw-dropping rudeness and then lashed out? The woman in line, said my friend, "symbolized the guy who cuts his car in front of yours, the clerk who ignores you, the person you hold open a door for who doesn't acknowledge it."

So what about this woman? What did she see in this guy tapping her shoulder?

He paused. "She could have just seen a black man. She could have seen a rapist from her past. She could have seen her abusive father....I don't care what she saw, it doesn't give her the right to abuse every man."

Another pause. "I don't think there's anything wrong with this Country that couldn't be solved by a revolution of kindness and courtesy," he said.

My friend may never see the incident from the woman's perspective, but he's right in suggesting that politeness never mattered more. It's a positive response that can fill the split-second space that opens a hundred times a day, a space to easily filled by reflexive rage and cruelty. You have to worry about the general health of courtesy in a culture where critics sneer at the niceness of a "Forest Gump" and praise "Natural Born Killers" as "over-the-top reality." Where girls are pushed to be harder and tougher and boys aspire to a granite-like veneer. In which I get so many compliments on my son's good manners that I am starting to wonder, "How badly are most kids allowed to behave?"

Tell me that people are naturally selfish, hostile, and scared, and I'll say sure. Say they're naturally generous, forgiving and loving, and I'll go for that too. We are a thousand things, good and bad, which we manifest daily in our split-second choices.

So day after day, we must refuse to get tired of being nice. Split second by split second, we must be as diligent about protecting our "rights." If we don't, all of life will be a long slow line filled with people hissing at each other. And nobody hearing a word.