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Speaking Up To Strangers Who Offend

In between the learning, there were a number of grade school pranks my classmates and I would play at Whittier Elementary in Waukegan, Ill. — like writing something clever on a small piece of paper, sticking tape or paste on the other side and discreetly placing it on the seat of the unsuspecting classmate who failed to look before sitting.

When the student inevitably rose and went to the chalkboard, the class would snicker and laugh. Sometimes that student would join in too, until someone had mercy and told, or the student discovered by osmosis that the joke was literally on him.

So the other day when I saw the car pull into the Hamden gas station with a green toy animal hanging by the tailpipe, I recalled my grade school classmates. It had to be a joke someone pulled on the unsuspecting driver, whom I now watched as he climbed out of his car and headed inside to pay for his gas. He was limping slightly and I'll be doggone if he didn't remind me of Omar from the HBO series"The Wire."

I caught up with him as he reached the door.

"Hey, you know, you've got a stuffed toy animal hanging on your tailpipe?"

"Yeah."

"OK. I thought maybe someone may have put it there."

"I put it there."

"OK."

He didn't seem as if he wanted to talk and I didn't push it. Maybe it's just a new thing folks are doing. Maybe it's a message. A sign.

A day later, I went on the Internet and typed, "What does it mean when a stuffed animal is hanging from the tailpipe?" According to one posting on the Straight Dope, a message board for public discussion, it symbolizes "an offering to the spirit of those who died in traffic accidents." It said it was a practice that originated in Korea, although it didn't say whether it was North or South. Hanging it there supposedly would keep the spirit engaged with the stuffed animal while leaving the driver alone.

Wow. Now that's some heavy stuff, though I might add I can't vouch for the credibility of the person posting it. Why? The other day while at the gym, this guy saw me doing an exercise on a bench in which I stretched my feet behind my head. He wanted to know what it was called. I told him I didn't know — I just did it. When pressed, I told him to call it the Harris Stretch.

But supposing the posting about the toy animal and the tailpipe was legit? Well, now I wished I'd asked that driver another question or two.

Then, while pumping gas, the heavy bass of his music blared from his open car door, accompanied by the "n" word, the "b" word, the "f" word and an assortment of other letters of the alphabet representing words most would not want shouted in public places..

It wiped away the toy animal hanging from his tailpipe and made me wonder what it is about folks who are oblivious to other folks' sensibilities. I've reached the point of not responding to each and every expression that trespasses against me. Like when someone heard shots from a nearby firing range and joked about Amadou Diallo. Or when a reader emails comments referring to Americans of African descent as animals.

In such cases, I know the situation will pass. Like this driver: He and I would be driving away soon. But what if we'd been in a place where we were stuck for some time together? Or the behavior got particularly egregious?

Years ago, while riding a New York City subway, I asked two young black teens why they insisted on using the "n" word, particularly in a subway car with whites. We talked about it and they stopped. It could have gone badly. But I had reached my I-don't-give-a-damn-I'm-saying-something moment.

There are so many things said and done in the course of the day in which people unknowingly trespass against us, and we in turn trespass against others.

The question is, When do we show we give a damn by not giving a damn?

Frank Harris III is chairman of the journalism department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He can be reached at harrisf1@southernct.edu.

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