On a sunny August Friday morning, I stopped in at Burlington’s Willow Bakery for a bagel and coffee. The cashier rang me up and then surprised me with, “There’s no cost. It’s been paid forward.”
An earlier customer had paid for themselves and a number of us coming after. It was only a few dollars, but I left the bakery a happy man, thrilled by the generosity of a stranger.
On the evening of Nov. 9, I had a very different experience.
When I arrived at Electra’s in Shelburne around 5:30 p.m., the parking lot was quite full and I pulled into a space on the southern edge of the lot. Seeing a sign, “Parking for tenants only,” I pulled out and parked two spots over.
I spent an hour or so in the Electra’s bar talking with a good friend. We covered a range of topics, trading stories from our lives. As a globetrotting, gregarious journalist, my friend has enough experiences to make into a fascinating memoir. We talked about that a little. We also spoke about The Charlotte News, where I serve as the volunteer publisher and board chair, and he writes occasional stories.
As arranged, I left around 6:30 when my friend’s wife arrived.
Walking across the dark parking lot, I saw a large grey Audi SUV, Vermont license plate, backed bumper to bumper against my tiny Toyota Prius C. I was incredulous. Really? Someone would deliberately park their car so that another was unable to exit? WTF?!
I went back into Electras, told them what had happened, expressed some moderately hostile feelings and showed them my photo of the license plate. I offered to walk around the bar and restaurant to find the driver and to ask them to move their car.
The host gently declined, sensing my anger, I suppose. “We’ll take care of it.”
I wandered into the bar, told my friends what had happened and walked outside to wait.
After a few minutes, nothing had happened. I went back inside and offered to walk around the bar looking for the offending driver.
“That’s OK, sir. We’re taking care of it.”
After a couple of minutes outside, the Audi’s lights flashed as the driver unlocked his car. I followed him on his way to the car, and when he turned to face me asked, “What were you thinking?” My tone wasn’t angry, but it was certainly incredulous.
No response. He was slightly built, about five feet eight inches tall, in his early 30s, wearing a closely cropped beard.
Still no response. His expression seemed unapologetic, matter of fact, no big deal, I’m entitled, the rules don’t apply to me … and then, I sensed … menace.
“It was just a question,” I said and walked to my car.
He moved his and parked it in the spot reserved for tenants only.
Driving by as he was walking back into Electra’s, I lowered my window and said, “That spot is for tenants only.” No response again. I yelled out, “You f—— a——,” and sped out of the lot, shaken and discombobulated.
We don’t behave like this in Vermont, do we? We practice loosely defined community values that guide our everyday behavior. We say thank you, we help our neighbors, we support local organizations, we’re civil to friends and strangers, we don’t block cars in parking lots … and we don’t call people ““You f—— a——,” do we?
Apparently, the Audi driver didn’t share these values. Who was he? Did he live in another world, the place that’s populated by election deniers, conspiracy freaks, fake news pushers, those who feel passed by, women and men who want to tear everything down and to take no responsibility for the consequences of their behavior.
I’m reading the latest from David Brooks, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” This book showed me that I could have behaved differently towards Mr. Audi driver.
“Good evening. Thanks for coming out to move your car.”
“This place is really busy and it’s hard to find a place to park, isn’t it?”
“You can park in my spot once I’ve left.”
“I’m curious about how you chose to park where you did.”
Would this approach have led into a conversation? Would we have parted, if not enriched by the experience, then at least with a little more understanding of each other’s values. Would we have “seen” each other, even a little?
(John Quinney is a publisher and chair of The Charlotte News board of directors. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the board.)