This morning, my wife was running errands and stopped at the local gas station to fill up. The corner gas station was hopping, and she waited her turn at the pump. A space opened, she pulled in, and began to pump her gas. Across the parking lot, about half-a-dozen young, African-American men were hanging out — sitting on their cars, talking, sipping soft drinks, and enjoying one of the last mild days of autumn. Doing the things that teenage guys everywhere do on a lazy Saturday morning. One of the young men turned on his radio to a hip-hop station.
According to my wife’s account, the music was barely audible at her distance. Yet the elderly man gassing up his pickup on the far side of her pump was incensed. Enraged, he popped open his camper shell, retrieved a baseball bat from within, and began swinging it wildly, screaming profanities and racial epithets.
My wife, caught in middle, quietly finished filling her tank and walked into the store to let them know that a “race riot” was about to break out in their parking lot. The attendants followed their procedure: they locked the door (trapping my wife inside for the duration) and called 911.
We live in a small, quiet suburb and the police officer soon arrived. The elderly man was still screaming and swinging his bat wildly, but he hadn’t advanced on the young men, who were still staring in amazement and laughing unbelievingly at his uncontrolled display. (In my mind’s eye, from my wife’s description, I picture a white-haired Yosemite Sam on a wild tear.) The officer parked his car in between the parties, but this didn’t discourage the tirade.
He took statements from the witnesses and, the last my wife saw as she left the station, he was calmly talking to the offending gentleman in the front seat of his squad car. The young men smiled and waved covertly at my wife, the white lady in the Volvo who cared enough to say something in their defense.
We’re going to see Roger Waters’ touring revival of “The Wall” tonight at the Sprint Center. That album was probably my first real “favorite” album, and it was an important voice though my adolescence. I didn’t have the opportunity to see it back then (few did) — they only performed about 30 shows in four locations world wide. The closest to me were New York and LA, and I was just a kid in Kansas City. I had to wait until their next tour, in 1988, to see them perform live. Until this tour, “The Wall” has only been performed live once (1990, Berlin, to mark the tearing down of that infamous Cold War wall). I would have gone to that, but I already had a European trip planned and, being a poor, starving college student at the time, just couldn’t afford it — although I was jealous of a couple of friends who did manage to go.
So tonight is probably my only opportunity to see one of my favorite musical pieces performed live by its creator (although I’m sad the surviving members of Pink Floyd aren’t joining Waters). It is an overwrought, psychedelic narrative mess. But it still strikes me as profoundly honest and it deftly and courageously engages themes that are important to me.
I’ve been writing a lot about fear and hatred the past couple of years, as I’ve worked to complete a book manuscript about how the world we’ve created seems so often to disappoint, go astray from our plans, and divide us (as well as, of course, my modest thoughts about what we can do to improve it). Those themes are central to “The Wall.” And they are also crucial to understanding the small, shocking display of blind hatred my wife witnessed this morning, practically in our own backyard.
I don’t know anything about the man who so completely came unglued this morning. There are many reasons for why he could have acted the way he did (and almost none of them have anything to do with the young men to which his hatred was directed). But I’ll be thinking about him this evening as we watch “The Wall.”