At the intersection of 29th and Madison yesterday at 6:10pm, I watched a pedestrian cross the street and nearly collide with a driver.
Pedestrian: “Watch where you’re going, stupid!”
A classic opener. It quickly establishes a tone, alleges wrongdoing, and throws in a widely recognized insult. Its simplicity calls to mind the whole tradition of strangers cursing at each other in New York City.
So far this exchange is going well. It may even become one of the all-time greats, like when my cab driver chased an SUV down 2nd Ave, away from my intended destination, screaming in Arabic and scraping the SUV with his side-view mirror.
Driver: “Can’t you read the sign?”
The driver’s response is disappointing. Although it deftly shifts the blame, it fails to increase the tension or the stakes. With his first effort, the driver really needs to escalate things—perhaps with a slur, a gesture, or a gob of spit. Anything less is a show of weakness.
Also, the sign in question is a blinking red hand. It doesn’t use words. So it can only be “read” in a metaphorical sense, which may be too subtle a meaning for this exchange. A better choice would have been “see,” which would have cast doubt on the pedestrian’s basic physical abilities.
Pedestrian: “Shut up!”
Also a classic, but it seems to come out of left field. Is the pedestrian implying that he doesn’t want to be reminded of his own guilt in this situation? Is he feeling hurt because he truly cannot read? This retort also misses an opportunity to tack on another insult.
With this response, the pedestrian appears to be less experienced and savvy than his opening remark suggested.
Driver: “You asshole!”
A strong comeback, and well-timed. This exchange has definitely moved from the realm of the factual (who is at fault) to the realm of the personal (who is the asshole). But the pedestrian missed his chance to land a direct insult in the last round. Here, the driver capitalizes on that mistake.
Perhaps sensing that he’s beaten, the pedestrian echoes the driver’s insult without embellishment, and with considerably less conviction.
It’s 6:10pm. Everyone wants to go home. No one is doing their best work. The driver can claim a victory here. But he’s still stuck in traffic, replaying events in his mind, while the pedestrian shuffles north.