I know it sounds foolish, or like that Lyle Lovett song, “I Love Everybody.” We know that Lyle Lovett can’t possibly love everybody. Everybody can’t possibly love him. When I saw him in concert with his Large Band he played a very long show (but didn’t perform “I Love Everybody”) and, at the end, as I looked around, I saw that some of the people trudging out of the theater toward their cars didn’t love that.
I know that if I waved to Lyle Lovett from where I was in the theater he wouldn’t see me or wave back. But, if we were passing each other on the street, or if we were both driving Jeeps (my son, who owns one, says Jeep owners must wave at each other as they pass each other–typically two fingers extended from the steering wheel, and when he left his Jeep with us for a while and told me to drive it occasionally so the battery wouldn’t die, I did the two finger thing with other Jeep drivers and they did it back to me), and he wasn’t lost in the kind of thoughts you’d expect a reasonably well known singer/songwriter to have, he might wave back.
To be sure, there are risks in waving at people beyond not getting a wave back. We can all imagine people exist who are definitely NOT worth waving at. We can see them now, coming toward us, eyes on the cell phone, lips pulled back in a snarl, arms stiff from anger, legs pushing the feet down flat on the sidewalk, brain cooking up more snarky nastiness to send to a place that only exists in the minds of people who spend too much time on the Internet.
You can see them coming toward us wearing a T-shirt that says something that bothers us. The hair is too short or too long and may not have been washed this morning. The clothing doesn’t match or could be just a bit inappropriate for the setting. Who wears THAT to a supermarket?
Or, in these times of the plague, they’re not wearing a mask and they’re giving you that disdainful sneer that says you’re an idiot for wearing one, or the mask they’re wearing is printed with something that bothers us, or the mask isn’t on properly, exposing a nose that could blow out stuff that might kill us, someone we love, someone who made music we like but hasn’t had a hit record in a while (not Lyle Lovett but the great John Prine whose equally sardonic, bittersweet songs created a place for Lyle and so many others for whom gentle laughter is a saving grace). That same junk can end the life of someone who said something, posted something or texted something that made a big fuss on the media and now people we don’t know think that this person should suffer.
What about those hyper-aggressive, toxic testosterone types who see every human contact as a friend-or-foe threat? What if you wave and they stop, pivot toward you, drop into a fighting stance and demand to know why the %$#@&* you’re in their space or making their space your space, and waving at them?
In some places, with some people, the slightest demonstration of public civility, respect or ordinary courtesy can be perilous. Some find it downright disturbing. What right do I have to wave at them? What right do I have to wave at all? Where in United States Constitution is it written that we are free to make this simple, harmless public gesture? First amendment free speech? Hardly. My empty hand doesn’t say a word.
But the gesture can create a feeling of commonality, a connection, a relationship where none existed. The absolute worst thing that could happen is this person who doesn’t watch the same cable news channel we watch, doesn’t believe the conspiracy theories we do, claims to worship the same God but doesn’t worship in the way we do and may even like kale smoothies–waves back.
That’s what’s been happening to me as I go for a run or walk the dog. People I don’t know, people I don’t even remember seeing before, are waving back. Sometimes they do it so fast that I don’t respond quick enough and I feel terrible about what that person must think of me, the waver who doesn’t wave back.
But then, it’s over. The other person has passed me.
So far, nobody has waved too much to me. I can imagine what that is: I give the little salute and that person’s arm starts whirling like a propeller and I ask myself is this person mocking me or, protecting themselves from a spiral column of nasty little bugs?
A few times the wave-returner makes a comment about the weather. I used to get mad at people who talked about the weather because a writer I once knew told me that you never start a story by talking about the weather–you cut to the chase, toss out the hook that drags the reader in, begin in media res.
Now I know that talking about the weather is one of the big nothings of socializing, which, when you think about it, is filled with inconsequential comments, subvocal grunts, minor postural changes, empty gestures and the subtle heroism in stifiling a belch. It’s not so much that we having nothing to say–even if we’re shy, we have too much we could unload on those who might listen. But, instead, we permit ourselves to inhabit a place where the fate of the free world does not depend on what we say and do.
Talking about the weather is a little bit like asking, “How are you?” You’re briefly recognizing that person, even if you know nothing about them and probably don’t want to know much. “Fine, thank you,” also used to bother me as a reply, because, how can we be fine when people elsewhere are suffering and all this horrible stuff is happening around us?
To quote John Prine: “It’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re going to drown. That’s the way that world goes round.”
REM: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Me? I’m thinking about my open hand. It’s empty, but when I wave it, something always fills the space.