BOSTON — The rain was coming down in sheets, it was already after 8:30 a.m., and I was late for an important hearing that was part of the responsibilities of my job. I was dressed up, too, high heels and everything. So I hailed a cab, thinking that would be faster than the subway.
After a long wait, I finally got a cab, but the traffic was moving at a snail's pace, and the driver stopped to pick up another customer along the way.
I was really going to be late, and I was really getting tense. I looked at my watch every 10 seconds.
Then, just as the traffic started moving, the driver spotted a man up ahead in a wheelchair. He was sitting there by the curb, getting soaked while holding his arm out - incredibly patiently, it appeared - to hail a cab.
"What a day for him to be waiting outside!" the driver cried, and began to pull over.
Just what I needed. Unbelievable. I could see another 20 minutes going down the drain, the whole production of lifting him into the cab, folding up his chair and fitting it into the cab's small trunk, then dropping him off who knows where, and everyone at work staring as I straggled into the hearing room mid-morning.
Even before I spoke, I felt that two parts of me were in a race, and that I was nearly helpless to stop the narcissistic component which, smaller yet faster, blinded by my own predicament at that particular moment, was going to win.
"What are you doing?!" I exclaimed to the driver.
As the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back, disown them. The wrongness of my reaction started to sink in, and it shocked me. I almost wasn't sure who that person was who had just spoken.
The driver ignored me, and as I sat there in the back seat, immobilized, he stopped the cab and got out, as did the other passenger, to attend to the man. I could still redeem myself, act appropriately, replace the mistaken words with new, proper words. The disabled man was youngish, with brown hair and glasses, calm and self-effacing.
I got out of the cab and fled for the nearest subway station. As I ran, I understood that, while it wasn't incumbent on me to take the time to help the man into the cab, I shouldn't have complained about the driver stopping. I should have been able to see beyond my impatience to attend to what was most important. When I thought about it at the time, and when I think about it now, this is my analysis: While I am not a particularly self-centered person, I fell prey to the self-centeredness that living a busy life in a big, fast-paced city can promote.
It's akin to the tough exterior that New Yorkers often develop in order to cope with living in such a crowded, difficult city. I see it almost every day in the large East Coast cities where I live and spend time, and it surely correlates with the fast pace of life, the time pressure people find themselves under, and the anonymity of the urban landscape.
But understanding why it happens doesn't make it right.
Since that time, when I notice that I'm on the verge of reacting to a person or situation with unwarranted impatience or pushiness, I try to rein my reaction in, get my priorities straight, give the other person a break.
I sometimes think of the Albert Brooks movie "Defending Your Life," in which, after he dies, he's shown a video of the worst things he did in his life, and has to defend himself.
I try to keep that paradigm in mind for myself. I'd hate to see a video clip of me telling that cab driver not to stop.
*Susan B. Kaplan is a lawyer and writer living in Boston.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society