Back when one of my duties at the college was to advise the student newspaper, some 25 years ago, it was not unusual for us to work late into the night, for me to spring for pizza and soda, and for the weary students to get a little frisky. On one such night, they all decided to have their individual pictures taken “throwing the finger.”
They thought it was hilarious. And some came up with some remarkably creative poses.
“Okay, Ed,” they said at last, “your turn.”
“What the heck,” I thought, but before I struck a pose of my own, I stopped. It occurred to me in my entire life I had never thrown the finger. At first the students thought I was lying. But when I assured them I wasn’t, they were shocked.
“Oh my God!” one of them exclaimed. “How do you drive?”
It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.
And one of the saddest.
Most of us drive with a chip on our shoulder, all too ready to honk a horn, shake a fist, or, when all else fails, yes, throw the finger. Courtesy on the road — something my dad drummed into me the first time I ever got behind the wheel — went out, it seems, with my shoulder length hair and bell bottom jeans.
Until, perhaps, now.
That wisecrack of my student came to mind the other day when I put on my blinker to make a left-hand turn and the driver approaching me in the other lane came to a stop, flashed his lights and waved me through.
Nothing like a global scare to bring out what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” He used that phrase at the end of his first inaugural address, prefacing it with, “We are not enemies, but friends.”
The rush by some Americans to buy guns and stock up on ammo aside, it appears we are once again beginning to look upon one another as friends. There’s something about all of us being in the same boat that reminds us we’re all in the same boat. In a blog last week, I wrote about the novel coronavirus and the restrictions that have been placed upon us to combat it being a great equalizer. Whether you drive a Maserati or a Ford Focus doesn’t make much of a difference when there’s no place to go. Whether you take your meals at the Westmoreland Club or at Pittston Diner doesn’t much matter when both are closed.
It brings back memories of the Flood of 1972 when the stock broker and the stock boy found themselves filling sandbags side by side and realizing they were a lot more alike than different. Today, in a matter of a couple of weeks, that stock boy replenishing the shelves at the supermarket has been elevated to one of the most important people in our lives, a genuine hero going to work every day to help us survive. The stock broker, not so much.
As talk goes from a recession to a possible depression, I am reminded of two interviews I did as a young reporter. One was with the late Chet Szumski, of Dupont, who grew up during The Great Depression. “That was a time,” he said, “when nobody had anything, and they were willing to share it.”
This is what I witnessed when I stopped one night last week for take-out food at Arcaro’s the Next Generation on Main Street, Pittston, partly to treat my wife to their linguine with clam sauce and partly to support them through these difficult times, and learned that, despite their own financial struggles, they were offering free lunches to school kids. And even delivering them.
They poured me a free cup of coffee while I waited for my order.
The second interview that comes to mind was with the late George Bainbridge on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of his high school graduation. He was 91 years old and the only survivor of the class of 1903. He recalled growing up in West Wyoming in the late 1800s, a time, he said, when everyone was poor but did not know it. That’s something you often hear about those times.
“My mother raised pigs,” he said, “but the biggest, plumpest pig? Well, we didn’t even get the squeal out of that one. That one was for the neighbors.”
That’s how things were back then, he added. “Others came first.”
I doubt we will find ourselves raising pigs when all this settles down. But I do hope we find ourselves putting others first. And seeing our neighbors, whether they are in the house next door or in the car trying to make a turn, for what they truly are: our neighbors.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.