THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Wickersham

What’s his story?

Startled by the kind action of a stranger

By Joan Wickersham
May 13, 2011

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THIS IS a story about gridlock, road rage, baseball, and grace.

One afternoon last week, my friend P left work and started to drive home. It was rush hour; the streets were clogged. It’s like this near P’s office every weekday afternoon. There’s no natural opening for a driver waiting to enter the stream of traffic — there is no stream, just a standstill even when the lights are green. It’s especially challenging if you need to enter and cross several lines of eastbound traffic in order to get into a westbound lane. You have to nose your car into the street and hope for the best.

On this particular Thursday afternoon, the best didn’t happen. P got stuck in gridlock halfway across the lanes, and the eastbound driver closest to her got angry.

He honked. Then honked again. Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. P couldn’t get her car out of the way; there was no room to move. Even if she had been able to get out of the way, there would have been no room for this guy to move; the lanes in both directions were packed with stopped cars. Still the guy kept honking.

P gave him an apologetic look and raised both hands, palms up, in a gesture that said “Sorry — but what can I do?’’ The angry man gave P the finger with both hands. He started screaming at P — the same words over and over, an obscene adjective followed by a misogynistic noun. He started honking again; and with each honk his car lurched forward, closer and closer to P until finally the nose of his car was an inch away from the door of hers. His face was a twisted snarl of rage.

By this point P was scared. More than scared. This was beyond angry commuter; this was crazy and unpredictable and possibly dangerous. The guy was still honking and screaming and revving his engine. She needed to get away, but there was no place to go. She was boxed in.

Then, as P sat there panicking, a driver in the westbound lane lowered his window and gave her a sympathetic look. A smile, and a tilt of his head that said, “Hang on, it’ll be OK, I’ll let you go in front of me.’’ P was happily startled, first by the eye contact and the man’s reassuring kindness and second because she recognized him. He was the manager of the Boston Red Sox.

P is an avid Red Sox fan. Watches, listens to, or goes to every game she can; knows the lineup and the statistics and the standings. At the moment when the westbound traffic started to move and the Red Sox manager waited to let P maneuver her car in front of his, it happened that she was actually listening to sports talk radio, where the announcers and callers were analyzing that afternoon’s disaster of a game. An 11-0 loss, with the Red Sox pitchers giving up 18 hits.

So not only did P recognize the chivalrous driver in the westbound lane, she knew what kind of day he’d had. Knowing the context of this small act of kindness — a gesture made at the end of what must have been a really long and lousy afternoon — made it particularly moving.

“What’s the story with him?’’ we say sometimes, when a stranger behaves in a way that annoys or baffles us. It’s a rhetorical question, usually applied to a negative experience; what we’re really saying is that we can’t imagine a story that would make that stranger behave like such a jerk. Who knows what the story was with the angry guy who kept honking and swearing at P?

For some reason we don’t tend to ask “What’s his story?’’ when we are startled by a stranger’s kind action — even though kindness can be as mysterious and intriguing as its opposite. We never truly understand what’s going on with the people whose paths we cross in the middle of any given day. But every now and then the pieces fall together for a moment, to give us a gracious, grateful, accidental glimpse of what the story really is.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joanwickersham.com.