Bigmouth Strikes Again

When I was younger, I was something of a jerk.

That’s not to say I’m never a jerk today, but I have definitely mellowed with age. A pretty common occurrence for me when I was in my 20s was to hear someone say: “Hey, I know this guy who is just like you – he’s a total jerk!” I don’t hear that too much anymore. But it was always kind of a downer.

The other downside of being a jerk is that some people project all their passive-aggressive jerkish desires onto you. So someone will be irritated by Meg, and they’ll say to you “Boy, Meg’s Halloween costume is something else, isn’t it, Pete? I bet you could say something really mean about how slutty it looks. Right? Right? Am I right? Wouldn’t that be funny?” Then they look at you and hope you’ll go make a scene. If these people aren’t actively providing you with beer, they become intolerable pretty quickly.

Years of working for a living and generally learning that words have consequences have caused me to moderate my jerkish tendencies. But every so often something will slip past the shields. That happened tonight, at the library.

I was checking out a pile of books, looking forward to a weekend full of deep reading, when I overheard a couple of the younger clerks, a man and a woman, chatting about the G-20 conference that is happening in Pittsburgh next week. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the level of protests that are going to happen. Pittsburgh has its own Special Ed group of hardcore protesters who show up at every event, but as eyerollingly cheesy as they are (footnote 1) I think most Pittsburghers have developed a sort of reluctant affection for them. They may be embarassing, unwashed and irritating, but they are nonviolent and, when not chaining themselves to buildings, are generally decent people. In Pittsburgh, being decent counts for a lot.

(A brief detour before I return to my story. A few years ago, I was watching a grueling documentary about people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, most of whom of course did not survive. One particularly touching story was that of a woman who was getting ready to jump, and this guy was watching, and saw that no one else was doing anything, and he hung out with her and talked with her and then, just as she was about to leap, he climbed over the railing, reached out, grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pulled her out. In the interview, the guy couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly do anything else. It was the right thing to do. It was the decent thing to do. When I found out that the guy was from Pittsburgh, all I thought, with absolutely no sarcasm or meanness, was: “Of course he was.” That’s Pittsburgh.)

But the real question for those of us who live here is how many protesters are visiting from other places, and how many of those protesters are out to start real trouble, where by real trouble I mean the destruction of property or violence. I don’t think anyone knows for sure how rough things will be next week.

So I’m listening to them talking about the protest, and one of them says to another “I heard this great tactic for protesting. When you go out to protest, wear Steelers fan gear, so that if the cops sweep up the street, they’ll think you’re just a fan out on the town, and they won’t take you in!”

Something inside me just broke when I heard this. Partially, it’s because I expect the protestors to be in my neck of the woods, interfering with my trip to and from work, and partially its because I, being a pessimist, do expect people to get hurt, and to have my worst expectations about humanity in general confirmed. So hearing people treating it like a game kind of pissed me off. (Footnote 2)

So, betraying my hard-earned experience, I unlimbered my tongue and the artillery was fired before I had even finished checking out my books.

“Oh, that won’t work. The cops have already prepared for that. Didn’t you hear what they’re doing?”

“No, what?” the girl clerk said.

“Well, they’re traveling around with a big grille with lamb shish-kebabs on them, and whenever they encounter a person wearing a Steelers outfit, they’re going to give them a shish-kebab. And if the person doesn’t eat it, they’ll know that he or she is a vegetarian, and thus is just a protester and can be arrested.”

It turns out, purely by coincidence I’m sure, that both of these clerks were vegetarian. They weren’t amused.

But I was.

Footnote 1: ProTip™ for protesters: “The People…United…Will Never Be Defeated” is an annoying chant because it has an irritating and uneven meter, and also because it is demonstrably wrong.

Footnote 2: Allow me to observe that, when I was the age of these clerks, I would totally have treated protests like these as a game.