THE WAY WE LIVE Beyond the Cringe

Sure you’re against crime. So am I. But so what? The question is how much you’re against it. How extremely? It’s no good just being against. it anymore, in the sense of being against it philosophically or for the record. The war is on. Crime is winning.

My wife and I were driving back from dinner in Richardson. late on a Saturday night. I was stopped at a traffic signal at a big intersection. All of a sudden I heard squealing tires and a blaring horn. In the corner of my eye 1 saw yellow-white headlights smearing across the night. It*s amazing how many mental associations you can make in a split second like that.

The first order of business. of course, was cringing. It’s a more and more familiar posture. How many times, in the course of a day, do I have to cringe? Let me count the ways.

Just yesterday: A jerk in the parking lot at the mall said, “Excuse me, sir, you got a smoke I could borrow offa you?”

Oh sure right. Here il comes. This is how it ends. A jerk in the parking lot. Sure, of course 1 have a cigarette. I also carry a spare six-puck of beer in ease I run into guys like you who are out of beer. But tell me. Is that a gun in your pocket?

And now, this particular Saturday sight, another of life’s typical cringe situations. My own personal theory of the cosmos: Random squiggles of matter whirled out from the initial bang…slowly, billions of planets were formed…then il took several kabillion more years for humans to evolve.,.I was finally born, and now some drunk in a ’65 Pontiac is going to hit me and that will be the end. The other Big Bang. The Big Traffic Bang.

I knew he was drunk because he was blaring on his horn while he squealed through the red light. He was pushing peo ple out of his way with a blast of noise.

Slowly my cringe relaxed. I figured out that we probably were not. going to gel bit,. We were three cars back from the red light. I couldn’t even see the car really. I could just hear him blasting across the intersection, somewhere ahead. But I imagined the guy’s face. I saw him with tattoos and one huge piratical earring, laughing and screaming, “Wahoo!”

That’s it. The guy said wahoo. We’re all dead.

Then 1 realized he was making good his escape. He was about to get away with it. I looked around. The people in the cars all were frozen in place. Cringing. Listening for the wahoo part and then the Big Bang, ’Everyone was tense, motionless.

And then guess what happened! Two cars up! Right at the light! The blue-and-white light came on,, whirling around and around over our heads like Roy Roger’s lasso. The siren whooped. A cop! Ha! Right there where the guy came through! A cop! You know how you always say, Where are they when I need them? Well there she was! A cop in a cap car! Right there, and she saw the whole thing! Ha!

She whipped around the corner, put the pedal to the metal and pulled that sucker up against the curb in Jess than half a block.,

Then it started. Very ten tatively at first. Someone earby rolled down his window and whistled Someone else shouted. “Right on!” People started honking, their horns.

It was the weirdest scene – out there in the dark of the night, a bunch of total strangers Mopped atan intersection, and you would have thought Eisenhower was marching into Paris. People were. just, jubilant. that. this; jerk had gotten himself nailed. They were all braking and whistling and cheering to beat the band.

I surveyed the crowd. Reflexively, I made a political eorretness check. (Hey, sorry, but its an aspect of social reality. What if it’s a bunch of white fascists thrilled because some hapless minority guy is getting nailed?)

But we were fine politically. The crowd was very evenly black, white and Hispanic, and everybody was cheering together.

Maybe American mob mentality is changing. I hope so. A friend of mine was among the first American tourists into China after the Nixon thaw, He was in the marketplace in a Chinese city one day when a thief was caught. He said the police had to wade in through the angry mob to protect the thief, who otherwise would have been stoned to death.

Hey. that’s my kind of anti-crime mentality. That’s why the late-night scene at the intersection was so thrilling. It was one of the very first inklings I have detected of what I hope is a major coming trend.

Opprobrium! Absolute opprobrium. Gut-level fury. That’s why I asked how much you were against crime. How extremely? Because nothing will change until it’s always like the scene in that market in China.

Maybe Dallas is no different from anywhere else in the country. But I think it is. We still have a strong sense in Dallas that there ate rules for crime. I think of it as a ’60s thing: the notion that there is an etiquette, a sense of fair play, as if crime were cricket.

Among people who speak for the poor. for example, crime is always linked to the economy, as a kind of reverse tax. levied against the powerful by the powerless. The logic is this: When the money gets handed around more evenly, when the employment picture improves, when there is justice for all, when everybody can afford a trip to Hawaii, then we can get serious about crime.

It’s tough for me to buy: A guy is frustrated in his attempts to become a CPA. So he becomes a rapist instead.

And it’s even crazier among rich people. There are all sorts of Dallas crimes-tax cheating, bankrupting the nation and your own family with bank fraud, trying to have your wife murdered-that are bad, but not so bad you’d want the fellow to have to be in prison with poor people.

“He was under a lot of pressure.”

It’s not enough. We’re not against crime enough. We’re not furious. We still don’t think crime’s that bad. But I feel it changing, and I wait for my dream:

Total angry rock-throwing opprobrium. When we get tired of cringing. When it’s one cringe too many. Wrath. Nothing less will do. The wrath movement. Boy, that was a great moment. when that blue-and-white light went off on top of her car.

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