I’d like to thank Bo – the wild-eyed, cursing attendant at my local towing company – for reminding me what it means to be a man. He rattled my core without intending or realizing it, and I became a little better for it. So thanks, Bo.
A few weeks ago, my wife threw me a surprise birthday party at our apartment. The positive: great friends enjoying a fun evening celebrating my birthday. The negative: unrelenting paranoia about our friends getting towed.
In just over two years, we’ve had three different people towed from our apartment’s visitor parking for not having a visitor’s parking pass. Yes, our apartment has both designated visitor parking and required parking passes. Which they issue with 30 day limits. Which leads us and our friends to use outdated permits. Obtaining them every time we want to have friends over gets really old, really fast.
Despite my paranoia, I had a wonderful night with our friends. Around 11:30, they left to go home. Around 11:40, one of our friends called to inform me that he’d been towed. He’d used an older permit from a previous visit. Luckily, I knew the exact location of the towing company’s lot.
When we arrived, the attendant asked for $125 and my friend’s license. My friend wanted to know why he’d been towed. The attendant, whose uniform was embroidered with “Bo,” replied that the permit was invalid. My resigned friend – we’ll call him Bryan – had the unbearable temerity to ask for access to his car to obtain his license and money from his wallet. Bo persisted in harshly asking for $125 and a license. Bryan reiterated that he could provide neither without getting into his car. Bo reiterated that he wanted $125 and a driver’s license, and he didn’t care where either came from.
Meanwhile, I was writing a check for $125. As I finished signing my name, Bryan finally convinced his good friend Bo that they needed less conversation and more action, particularly the pushing of a button to open the gate of the impound lot. Bryan marched off to retrieve his wallet. I held my check out to Bo, who curtly informed me that he wouldn’t take a check.
“You won’t take my check?” I asked.
“I won’t take any check,” he snapped.
His attitude got the better of me, and I snapped back, “You won’t take a f***ing check?”
“If you want to get a f***ing mouth on ya, then get the f*** out of here.”
“You’re the one with a mouth, you’ve been completely unprofessional ever since we got here.”
At this point, a second friend (who had ridden with Bryan and now found himself marooned in a dark corner of an industrial park while I exchanged shouted obscenities with a guy with a mono-syllabic name embroidered on his mechanic’s shirt) interjected with some sanity.
“Eric, it’s not worth it. It’s not going to change anything.”
I took a deep breath and realized he was right. I stood to the side with him and waited for Bryan to return with his wallet. He took care of the bill with a credit card and got his receipt. My friends and I said good-bye.
As Bryan drove away, I sat in my vehicle and stewed. A tow truck brought in a Mustang GT. Another $125 for the towing company. Someone else who could get treated like an ATM and/or dirt. I weighed the situation carefully before deciding that I wasn’t going to let this situation pass unopposed.
I walked up to Bo and politely said, “Sir, can I get a business card?”
“All the info is on the receipt.”
“My friend has the receipt.”
“Get the receipt from your friend.”
“Can I get a business card?”
“The phone number is on the sign behind you.”
“I want a business card with a manager’s name on it.”
“If I had a business card,” he yelled, “I’d give it to you and get rid of you.”
“Okay,” I said calmly (believe it or not). “Can you write down on a piece of paper your manager’s name and a phone number I can reach him at?”
Glaring, wild-eyed, he shouted through the hole in the Plexiglas and into my face, “You’re about to get run over! Get out of here now!”
I turned to see the tow truck – fresh from unhitching the Mustang – trying to back up to Bo’s window for some reason or another. I didn’t expect to be run over, but I also began to sense that my conversation with Bo wouldn’t produce any results. Bryan got his wallet only because he didn’t make a very good ATM without it. Besides, I could Google the company’s contact information and Bo had his name helpfully stitched into his shirt.
“Okay, well, tomorrow I’m going to call your manager, and I’m going to tell him what an asshole you’ve been.”
As I walked away, he screamed – literally screamed – “F*** you, you fa***** motherf*****!”
I paused and something cold churned through my belly. My first thought was to return to the window and ask my good friend Bo to step outside, from behind his Plexiglas protection, and then speak to me like that.
I left instead, but I struggled mightily with my desire to return. I reminded myself that calling Bo’s manager was a much smarter way of dealing with the situation, yet I still wanted to challenge him to back up his words or back down. After a lifetime of watching Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis tear through anyone who looked at them sideways, I felt strangely weak and pathetic for just driving away. I felt like less of a man because I had left the conflict without calmly inviting him to share his thoughts nose-to-nose, and I debated going back until the moment I reached my apartment’s front door.
My wife was in bed but hadn’t fallen asleep yet, so I told her the story and how much I wanted to confront him.
“Eric, I guarantee he had a gun. He would have shot you.”
If you want to know how deeply masculinity runs within men, how thoroughly embedded action movies remain in our identities, never forget that I instantly thought, “I wouldn’t have let him shoot me.” I didn’t just think that I’d somehow win a gunfight with my fists. I felt it deeply in my soul, in that mysterious place from which soldiers draw the courage to knowingly enter dangerous situations without a second thought.
I didn’t share these thoughts and feelings because they didn’t really matter. I knew intellectually that fighting – with fists or guns – over the worst customer service in history wasn’t really worthwhile. And yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost some manhood. My wife sensed something weighing on me in the darkness and asked if I was okay. I explained that I felt like less of a man because I let Bo insult me without further comment.
She answered, “Eric, I think you did exactly the right thing. I would actually respect you a lot less if you had gone back and said or done anything. You shouldn’t stoop to his level. You should rise above it. You should stay calm and handle the situation intelligently and maturely. I’m proud of you.”
I understood and agreed with her point, but it took a few days for me to feel it in my heart. I had to work through my notions of masculine power and the exercise thereof. I had to truly accept that real men don’t expend aggression on frivolous, unworthy causes.
I’m a better man for thinking through this experience. I’ll save my blind rage and irrational belief in my invincibility for something worthy of their exercise, like protecting my wife from harm, and I’ll actually feel like more of a man when I restrain those aggressive qualities in less-than-worthy situations. From now on, I’ll conduct myself in the midst of conflict with dignity. Next time one of my friends gets towed, I’ll threaten to complain about “poor customer service.” I’ll watch my tongue and my heart, and I’ll hold my head high.
So thanks, Bo, for reminding me how to be a man.
Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.
Photo credit JPott/Flickr