Despite the photo illustrating this story, in general I’m an even-tempered fellow. (And if you don’t agree, well, get stuffed, asshole!) My son Nicky took this shot last summer in Santa Barbara, after yet another airline snafu, but in truth, it was staged. Aside from almost daily bird-flips when I lived in Manhattan—mostly to crazy drivers—four-second provocations that were quickly forgotten, not sure I can use all 10 fingers to count instances when I’ve been so enraged that my wits were thrown to the heavens above.
Once in ninth grade, I had a confrontation with a science teacher who jobbed me on a semester grade, jotting down a B instead of an A. Mr. Record—very popular at Simpson Jr. High in Huntington, New York—and I got along until his premature bout of dementia. See, he’d forgotten a mid-term test that put me above the 90 percent mark, and after school I was granted a 10-minute audience before he went off to coach the soccer team. He insisted I was wrong, we butted heads, and, finally exasperated, I took hold of his notebook and showed him precisely what I was talking about. Hard evidence. He was pissed off, even as he changed the grade to an A—which was crucial for college applications—and called me a “grade-grubber.” Now, had I given this moron the finger it would’ve exacerbated the situation, so we went to neutral corners (him to the soccer field, me to the outside smoking area) but I was steamed. Grade-grubber! Not in my hippie ethos at the time, and a complete misrepresentation of who I was, which was particularly galling coming from a marginally-literate overgrown jock.
Throwing up a middle finger is such a common practice that usually it’s fairly meaningless. When “Stairway to Heaven” or “Afternoon Delight” came on the radio, I’d often raise the digit before switching the channel. In college, as editor of the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, I often had to extricate myself from scrapes with Student Council bigshots—usually over complaints that the semi-weekly newspaper didn’t adequately cover utterly trivial campus events—but that was par for the course. One time, however, a meddling Council member led a charge to strip the News-Letter from its $5000 annual grant (an amount that was augmented by advertising revenue) and that led to a flip-the-bird showdown. Along with News-Letter colleagues, I collected some 1500 signatures on a petition to restore the money, and at the end, reason prevailed. It was a most satisfying outcome.
At a Bill Clinton rally near Wall Street ahead of the ’92 New York Democratic primary, I did a double-bird-flip when the presidential candidate fed the audience his standard line of baloney that he championed people “who play by the rules.” I couldn’t stand the blowhard to begin with, and preferred Jerry Brown in that race, but Clinton’s incredible hypocrisy about the “rules”—which he violated by endless equivocation over his Vietnam draft deferment, flip-flopping on issues, and his wife parlaying a $1000 investment in cattle futures into a $100,000 windfall, courtesy of Arkansas friends—was an insult to the vast majority of men and women in the financial industry who did conduct themselves with integrity.
A few years later, I nearly lost it upon finding out my paper New York Press was getting sued by a saleswoman who was told by our then-advertising director that she was “too old” for a job on an “alternative weekly.” Had to settle for $30,000. Oh, and another salesman once, after hours at the office, dropped trou in front of a woman he was trying to either impress or bang, and bingo, a sexual harassment suit. Like I needed shit like this?
Usually, people soften with age, figuring that battles that seemed so important in their 20s or 30s weren’t worth losing sleep over, and I’m in that camp (even if my wife and sons joke that, like two of my brothers, I’m borderline grouchy). A decade ago, if I was getting ripped off by a cabbie who jacked his meter, I let the guy have it, voices were raised (with the boys squirming) and the conclusion wasn’t pleasant. Today, when such a situation arises—certain cab companies in Baltimore are notorious for fast meters—I simply tell the cabbie he’s overcharging and I’ll pay what I usually do. And, surprisingly, there’s no fuss.
Could be forgetting a more recent blow-up, but I believe the last time I lost my temper in public was at an AT&T outlet, where I was purchasing a fancy cell phone for my wife’s birthday. The clerk had no idea what he was doing—he called my wife’s current cell, thus blowing the surprise—and was completely incompetent on the numerous details that accompanied the transaction. Much to my son Booker’s surprise, I went blotto, and began yelling at the guy, finally exiting the store with a defiant “Don’t shop here!” for the benefit of other customers.
On the subject of politics, unlike many people who risk friendships over partisanship, I take a more practical view. Sure, I enjoy animated conversation—such as pointing out what a shill Hillary Clinton is—but don’t let get things get out of hand. Politics runs in cycles, after all, and who needs the aggravation of personal animosity. If someone rants about illegal immigrants ruining the country, I go biblical and turn the other cheek after a few jabs. It’s not like I’m going to solve, or have any input, on this political hot tamale.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955