Working as an ice cream truck driver one day –a ding ding man, a good humor man, or whatever you call us in your locale– I was pulled over by a couple of bandannas, beneath hats that were turned backwards, and sunglasses. I braced for the worst. I envisioned this encounter a modern-day equivalent of bandits pulling over a stagecoach. I flirted with the notion that the only reason they stopped me “just to talk” was to allow their stickup man enough time to sneak around the back of the ice cream truck and complete the heist. I divided my attention between them and my mirrors as a result, watching for movement behind my truck. When that didn’t happen, I began to wonder if they were feeling me out, to judge if I was a soft and easy roll. All of that may have been unfair, but I have always been a nerdy guy, and these guys appeared to be so cool. I could find no reason why they would want to stop their truck in the middle of a neighborhood street “just to talk” to someone like me.
I’ll be blunt, I don’t understand any of the subtle and wide divides between being cool and being nerdy, and as many tell me, “You probably never will.” I did know that these guys were cool, however, or cooler than me anyway. They had this aura about them I call cool, but others, far smarter than me, call radiating self-possession. They spoke in an ethereal tone that suggested to me that they were probably potheads, and as one attuned to pop culture, pop culture references, and pop culture characterizations, I knew that meant that they had to be much cooler than me. If they were, in fact, thieves, and I was the aproned shopkeeper –to complete the “old west” analogy– their comparative cool points were through the roof.
In a world of what I considered proper metrics, I should’ve been the superior one in this encounter. I wore better clothes, and I figured I had a better education, but these guys had intangibles that I couldn’t even imagine attaining. They appeared to have the look, a sense of cool about them, and an aura that suggested that they were fun loving, party-going types. Such characteristics threw all of my metrics right out the window. They weren’t stupid, however, and that fact was evident minutes into our conversation, but there was no way their education was as expensive as mine was. If they were potheads, they probably spent a lot of time equivocating moral issues, and those that equivocate –my Catholic school educators informed me– have a fundamental flaw about them that they spend most of their time trying to hide. In this world of proper metrics, I thought I was, check, check, check, superior.
Except for one tiny, little nugget, I conveniently neglected to input into the equation: I was also wearing sunglasses and a bandanna beneath my backwards facing hat. The only difference between the three of us was that I didn’t wear this gear on a day-to-day basis. I wore this getup for the sole purpose of concealing my true identity. I was so embarrassed to be a ding ding man that short of wearing a fake beard and a Groucho Marx nose and eyeglasses, I had every inch of my identity concealed from the public.
They didn’t know any this of course. They must have thought I was a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses brutha, and that may have been the primary reason they decided to stop and chat with me in the first place. It may have been the reason they were so relaxed about their status, and my status, and the superior versus inferior roles in our approach to one another. When this idea hit me, I felt superior, until I realized that if I was superior, I wasn’t doing anything with it, and that fact led me to be embarrassed that I was now wearing a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses. I wondered if I input that new information into the paradigm if it might make me inferior to them. Then it dawned on me how many points we derive from knowing our limitations, and learning to live with them, until we’re so comfortable with who we are that we’re radiating self-possession. I realized that in my bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat, and sunglasses façade, I was going to get no points in any of these categories.
The bandanas, with hats on backwards, and sunglasses wore no shirts, and they were riding in a beat up, old International truck, that rattled in idle. They were construction guys with dark, rich tans that made their teeth appear whiter when they smiled and laughed. My guess, watching these two twentysomethings speak, was that even though they appeared inferior, they had no trouble landing women. My guess was that among those girls that knew them well, there was a whole lot of adulation going on. I didn’t know that to be a fact, of course, but guys like me –who were always on the lookout for what I missed in life– were always looking to guys like these for ideas.
They laughed a genuine laugh at some of the things I said. I remember that what I said had something to do with the business side of being a ding ding man, but I can’t remember specifics. I do remember their laughter, and I do remember wondering if they were laughing with me or at me. At this point in my life, I just escaped a high school that contained a large swath of people that were often laughing at me. This casual conversation among men reminded me of those kids I escaped, and it revealed the shield that I erected whenever I thought their types neared.
Something I did not expect happened to me in the midst of this conversation, however, and it happened soon after they told me they had to go. This something caused me to miss them before they drove away. I enjoyed speaking with them, and I realized that they had no pretensions about them. I realized that these two might have been just a couple of good guys, and that I liked being the guy they thought I was. The latter point was the something I didn’t expect. I wasn’t sure what it was they thought they saw, but I liked it, and it led me to watch them drive away until they were gone. The idea that most people speak in superlatives was not lost on me, but most people who knew me well said that I might have been one of the most uptight, frustrated, and angst-ridden individuals they’ve ever meet and the costume I currently wore supported that characterization more than I care to admit. Very few of these people have ever accused me of being too relaxed.
The idea that I was unable to put high school behind me didn’t hit me at the time, but looking back, I realize that my inability to enjoy a simple, casual conversation with some decent fellas –that just happened to drive up on me– was just that. I was still playing that proverbial king of the mountain game, a game I often lost in high school, and I was still so locked into a defensive position that it had ruined my life for years.
Is it true that we’re searching for a point of superiority, or inferiority, in even the most casual conversations? I don’t know, and some would say no, and others would say hell no! “I’m just asking you what you think about the latest wheat and grain prices on the commodity markets.” So, why do we loathe speaking to some people? What makes us so uncomfortable that we leave some of the most casual conversations feeling incomplete and inferior, and why do we enjoy casual conversations with others so much more? The tricky, sticky element of this argument is that most who propose that in some way, shape, or form these elements shape just about every conversation we have, wish we never discovered it. Now that our mind’s eye is open to the idea, we wish we could turn it off, and enjoy the fruits of casual conversations again.
If it is true that every single conversation has these elements in some form, where was I in this casual conversation with two guys that wore a bandanna, beneath a backwards facing hat and sunglasses? That was never established in a substantial manner, but my takeaway from this particular encounter was that for a very brief moment in my life, I didn’t care, and that might have been what I liked, what I missed, and what caused me to watch them drive away.