THE BLOG
08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting The Finger From A Family-Filled Station Wagon

Finally a beautiful morning and we were driving upstate feeling relaxed. NYC had been humid, the air white-filtered, phlegmatic. Buildings lost details: a mass of haze. The end of the week was spent slogging, but it was Sunday morning and impossible not to notice the change. The light had a perfect brightness. It was still cool and everything was particular and lovely. Colors true and distinct and even my sometimes rickety car running smooth, but now... ugh... a steady stream of trash is trickling out from the side-window of the station-wagon in front of us and onto the fresh paved road, state tax dollars at work. The trash tumbling, and the
stream of it steady onto the clean asphalt.

I am not an overtly tidy person, and tend not to get involved with strangers. But I was vulnerable: such a beautiful morning. It was a reflex. There was an affront, a slap to the idea of shared experience and shared resources and I acted on impulse.

The light was red, and I drove up next to the transgressing window rolling down my own but oops, here was an adorable little kid.
- Hey little kid, you shouldn't litter.
He was timid. Sweet. I liked him and felt sad.
- It was just gum.
- No it was a lot of other stuff too.
He looks remorseful. I'm feeling slightly guilty.
- Hey. Uh oh, now the dad's in it. I notice their car is packed. These are people serious about a family trip: a unit going up to the Catskills for the day, a group together enjoying the natural beauty of our state's parks.
- Mind your own F--ing business asshole.
Cars honk, the light is green and he's driving off, and I'm behind him. The window on the driver's side rolls down, a thick hairy arm extends. I'm surprised it's not caught by oncoming traffic it's so far into the other lane, and then the middle finger, emphatic. I feel sorry for the kid.

I wave, and my passenger returns the finger. He's pulling off arm affixed with finger, and he's glaring. I get the impression he wants to fight in this vacant lot on the side of the road. I drive on confused, thinking: poor kid. He'll never litter again or he'll be littering for the rest of his childhood to satisfy his brutish dad.

What to make of dad's reaction?
a. Blow it off. This guy has serious anger problems. His over-reaction justifies my initial impulse.
b. I've erred dramatically. Never reprimand another's child.
c. He was probably telling the kid to throw stuff out the window. Criticizing the kid was criticizing the parenting: big no-no coming from a young guy driving a junker oblivious to the stress of family outings.

I'm a little shaken, but we drive on. It's beautiful and we get back into the flow of the day trying to let his anger dissipate.
Still, certain things rankle.
Were we wrong? Is there something sacred about the family unit the violation of which is more an affront to personal liberty than something as obvious as littering is disgusting.
But, "None of your f--ing business." It is our business: we pay taxes. This is a public space. There are laws. Some municipalities charge a thousand dollars fine if it were a cop behind him and not us. We're thinking we did him a favor--like telling him his head-lights are off at dusk.

How to process this?
Better off in the future not to say anything. Let the kid litter and let the father teach him how to do it, and/or be oblivious to the kid's transgression. Let a cop give a fine and make some cash for the town. Abandon the idea that we are our brother's keeper, and it's a good idea to tell people their actions have repercussions. And the always nagging thought: what if there was a gun.

I wonder what the guy thought later, after he calmed down. Was he embarrassed, and did he realize that it was our business, that littering wasn't just a personal choice but something affecting other people in shared space. Or did he feel completely justified. Did he just remember the incident as a couple of prying young people sticking their noses into his business being self-righteous?

There was an affront, a slap to the idea of shared experience and shared resources and I acted on impulse. The light was red, and I drove up next to the transgressing window rolling down my own but oops, here was an adorable little kid.