On a recent trip to San Francisco to visit our son Michael, his wife Lisa, and our four-year-old granddaughter, Evie, my wife Joan and I had an unexpected opportunity to apply principles of nonviolence.
The night before Joan and I flew back to our home in Connecticut, the five of us shared a meal at Tony’s Pizza, where Lisa and I could order gluten-free pizza. Popular place. Forty minute wait. While the others waited inside on a bench, I took Evie for a walk in nearby Washington Park. She would test some limits, being at that age of defying parental injunctions, running around the corner when she was supposed always to stay in sight, and otherwise working out the limits of her autonomy. By the time Evie and I returned, a table was ready for our party.
Sitting next to Joan, on the bench side of an adjoining table, was a big man with a big head roughly the size and shape of a nail keg, and a big belly under a T-shirt with Italian flag colors. He was drinking wine and talking loudly about sports to another man who was standing opposite him, an old friend, as he later declared.
The man was so loud I was about to suggest to Joan that we swap seats when she spoke up. Joan turned to him and said “You’re yelling in my ear. Would you lower your voice?”
He stared at her dumbfounded, then looked quizzically at the rest of us to see if she represented us. He was about Michael’s age, I thought; mid-forties, or a little older. “Okay,” he said with obvious annoyance. “I guess I’ve invaded your space or something! I’m sorry!” He didn’t sound sorry.
“Thank you,” I said from my corner of the table.
He glared, then continued as loud as before.
On a visit to the men’s room, I saw the walls were decorated with photos from the Prohibition era: Al Capone, Carrie Nation’s vigilantes smashing open barrels of whisky with axes. I was thinking, Only in San Francisco, a haven for gluten-challenged diners with gangster fantasies. I returned to find Joan had switched seats with me, so now I was sitting next to Big Noisy. I cupped my hand to my ear to catch what I could of our conversation. I told myself I wouldn’t be hearing much anyway; the whole restaurant was pretty noisy.
Evidently my hand-cupping offended him, or the whole experience soured his otherwise stellar evening, because when we paid our tab and left, Big Noisy pursued us outside, drunkenly spilling his thick wallet and cell phone onto the sidewalk.
Luckily, Lisa was taking Evie to the restroom, so they missed the excitement.
“Hey!” He confronted me and Michael. “Hey! I apologized to the lady.” He jerked his head toward Joan. “But let’s settle this like men!” He was scowling, alternating his attention between Michael and me.
“Don’t you want your cell phone and wallet?” Michael asked, offering them.
The guy stuffed the items into his pockets. “You think you’re better than me!”
No, no, no, we all three assured him. We don’t think we’re better than you. Though our disclaimer may have sounded confrontational to his ears.
“Just let it go,” Michael said. “You’ve already spoiled our dinner! Just let it go. Let’s just move on!” Michael glanced hopefully over his shoulder at the open sidewalk, where a crowd had gathered around us. Nobody from the restaurant came out. We were on our own.
The man bunched his fists. He was going belly to belly with Michael, who’s fairly big himself but lost 85 pounds in the last year and was at a loss for belly. Michael was telling himself, as he confided later, If you have to hit him, don’t hit him in the gut; he’ll never feel it.
I took off my glasses, thinking, if I have to grab the guy around the neck, it’s a long reach.
“I’m LOUD!” the guy said. “So what?! I got an outdoor voice! I’m passionate. That’s who I AM! I’m Irish and Scottish and Italian! I was seeing my friend I hadn’t seen for fifteen years! We played on the same team. So I was loud!”
Outdoor voice. I was thinking third grade teachers, fourth grade teachers, all trying to subdue this bully.
“Who did you play for?” I asked.
That stopped him. “Arizona State,” he said gruffly.
“I’m from Oklahoma,” I said cheerfully.
“Where in Oklahoma?”
“Vinita,” I said. “Eastern Oklahoma.”
“Huh!” he sneered. But maybe we were in the same conference. I didn’t even know what sport we’re talking about. I hadn’t lived in Oklahoma since I was Evie’s age. Anyway, he’d diverted from the path of mayhem. He’d lost some momentum. His glare softened. “I’ve had a very bad day,” he said.
“We’re from New York,” Michael said with a grin. “We understand loud.”
Joan said, “I’m from Queens. We understand passion.”
He nodded. We gave him a way out with dignity, and he took it. Perhaps at some level, he was even relieved at not having to be a jerk.
“I’m David,” I said. With a familiar tap on his shoulder, I offered my hand. I few seconds earlier, I would not have risked that shoulder-tap. It might have provoked him. Now he accepted my hand and said, “I’m Bobby from Arizona State.” He had a grip like iron. I thought football: lineman or tackle.
Introductions all around:
Bobby from Arizona State leaned forward and kissed Joan on the cheek.
In a perfect world, we might have brought Bobby toward some more empathic state. But he was as drunk as the proverbial skunk. We did the best we could with who we were, acknowledging our common humanity. He was no longer Big Noisy. Far from spoiling our last evening with family, the incident made it all the more memorable.