Who's the crazy?
Action creates trust
There were countless elevator rides. This one stands out. It was a rainy day. I was wet from head to toe. The elevator was mostly full when I got on.
“Thirty two please. Thank you.” Nobody wanted to get any closer to me. They were dressed in the costumes of corporate respectability. Pantsuits, pencil skirts and blazers surrounded me. Everyone was wearing woven wool. Everyone except for me.
I was clad in cut off combat pants, a waterproof and breathable cycling jacket, bike grease and about seventy five percent more ass stink than everyone else in the elevator combined. I wore bread bags over my socks in an attempt to keep my feet dry that morning.
There was a circle of moisture on the floor around me. I was sopping, soaking, dripping wet. One by one they shuffled past me on and off the elevator. They kept their gazes lowered. As they did I started to hum an old song from Sesame Street.
Three of these kids belong together, Three of these kids are kinda the same. One of these kids is doin’ his own thing, now it’s time to play our game…
I was interrupted mid hum. “You’re kind of like a goalie,” came a voice from the back of the elevator. I turned and saw him there. Dude was my age, had a bit of stubble, hopeful eyes and a cheap suit, off the rack that told me he didn’t earn much more than I did as a bike messenger.
“You’re a messenger right?” I nodded, “You’re kinda like a goalie,” he persisted.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I play hockey. I love taking shots and hate getting in the way of them. Goalies get in the way of them. You put yourself on the line like they do. Because of this, goalies are a little weird. They’re pretty intense. But you look normal? You don’t look like a messenger. Where are your tattoos? Why no piercings?”
“Haven’t paid my union dues yet”, I chirped glibly, “That, and I’m even more weird than the typical bike messenger. I even refuse their ‘non conformist’ uniform.
“You’re a braver man than I am” he said, shaking his head and stepping off the elevator.
To this day, I’m not certain whether he was more afraid of my appearance or the prospect of flying down Bay Street at Mach 3 loaded down with sixty pounds of packages.
Back then, I thought it was the act of cycling in traffic. Now that I’m older, I think he was more afraid of being judged based on his appearance.
Fast forward twenty five years. Riding through my suburban neighbourhood I had an encounter with a man in an older German made performance SUV. This encounter was recorded. It was posted on the community facebock page. Perceptions and appearances are still very interesting.
The bully was a home inspector - a professional, for certain, but a ‘trade based’ professional. He was clearly blue collar. Despite his fancy car, he wore a uniform. He seemed to have little cultural capital or experience beyond the boarders of this small town.
But given his car, his clean shaven appearance, people were quick to make up stories about who he was and what was going on.
Me? I was on an old, classic bike. I wore a plaid shirt, bowling style shoes and hand mended bluejeans. From the outside my appearance told a story.
The narrative that emerged from the facebock comments was funny. People began to assume that I was a marginalized person who had limited intellectual capacity and likely a profound mental illness. I was clearly poor.
And the other dude? He was seen as a wealthy oppressor who drove a Porsche and pushed people around. He was seen as being ‘better off’ than me. He wore the uniform of ‘success’. He presented as though he was ‘winning’ or at least ‘doing pretty well for himself’.
Poor guy. He worked his ass off, did well enough to buy a five year old Porsche and he got punked by a philosopher on a forty year old bike wearing designer plaid and high end Canadian made bowling shoes.
I stayed calm. His road rage? It was as though he was protesting: “I have all these things. I’ve done everything correctly! Life should be easier!” He was desperate for respect and acknowledgement. He wanted the world to know he was doing well. And here was some crazy guy, riding a bike, dressed in ragged clothes and refusing to get out of his way.
Though I looked crazy and marginal, and he looked normal and comfortable, his road rage behaviour spoke volumes about his mental health and well being.
But funny enough, no one on the Fackbok community page picked up on that part. They saw an expensive car and an old bike. They didn’t see that the car was old and a bit out of date. They didn’t see that the bike was classic, retro and essentially priceless.
We see what we want to see. We see what we know. And unlike the guy in the elevator, we rarely test out our assumptions. We rarely have the courage to check and see if our assumptions are true.
I think both of those dudes were crazy. I’ve never been able to work in an office. And I’ve worked places where style not substance rules the day. In those places a five year old Porsche matters. The quality of your phone, pressed pants and the ‘right’ restaurant? They all matter too. And living in such a climate of judgement and ‘policing’, is completely crazy making.
Eventually though, people recognize behaviour. Action matters. Action creates trust.
Buying the stuff and dressing the part is a form of participatory compliance. It’s playing dress up as part of a big game of make believe we call ‘professionalism’.
But I think there are more revealing, more authentic actions of character beyond putting on a costume.
It’s like the old saying goes:
Let’s put some lipstick on this pig, maybe then it will give up that damn bike and drive a car like a normal person!