I was raised by loving parents, who taught me a great number of things growing up. One of the most important things they taught me was the importance of being polite. Though I haven’t always adhered to this policy, I have found that when I have, it has always been to my advantage. In the interest of propagating this idea, which, at times, seems like an alien concept to my fellow humans, please allow me to regale you with a series of anecdotes.
When I first went to a major university in order to study fine arts (a path I soon diverted from, which is a another story, entirely), I got a part-time job working at a franchise submarine sandwich shop in order to help pay my modest bills and provide day to day spending money. Today, that position would be euphemistically be called “sandwich artist”, but this being 1989, no one felt the need to alleviate the loss of dignity one undergoes when taking a sub-minimum wage job with a fancy title.
Let me first say that I am not a “people person”; the idea that I would be tasked with the duty of interfacing with the general public is not the best idea in the world. The idea that, in the execution of those duties, I would be representing both the corporation behind the franchise, as well as the franchise owners, made such duties psychologically trying for me. In order to provide full disclosure, I should probably mention that I was fired from that job. In fact, I was fired from that job a few times. Yes, the same job. Yes, they re-hired me a few times. Times were different back then, and in that place and time, they needed me more than I needed them. Anyway, having been fired a couple of times already from the job, I got a call to come back and give it another try, which I did. This time, I came into the situation with a plan in my head; I would be polite, at all times. Painfully polite. Painfully for me, mostly, and painfully, at times, for the customers. Regardless, I maintained a strict discipline on that employment run of constant, overbearing politeness. No matter how rude the customers might be, or how much I may have intuitively disliked them, I treated each and every one of them with overt politeness, and respect. Politeness helped maintain a level of professional courtesy, and masked my disdain for the customers, but I also found that politeness, directed at people who were adversarial, was disarming for them. It was difficult for them to maintain an adversarial position when the only thing returned was more politeness and respect, which would gradually wear them down, and usually, in the end, they would match my politeness with their own politeness.
Sure, this forced politeness sometimes backfired; there were still complaints to management from aggrieved customers who felt that my politeness was insincere, or even that I was somehow mentally challenged, but as a tactic for keeping an even keel on behalf of a generally misanthropic dude forced to interact with a wide range of personality types, it was by far the most effective strategy, allowing me to not be fired again from that job.
Much more recently, while living in San Francisco, I had a pet project of taking panoramic shots from the available open hilltops in the city. On weekends that I wasn’t working in my comfortable non-public-facing job, I would load up a backpack full of photography equipment and head out to a particular chosen hilltop to set up shop. One Saturday, I used a sling bag to do this, and didn’t have room for a tripod in the bag, so I took an old rifle sling, a nylon strap, basically, and attached one end to the head of the tripod, the other end to one of the feet, and slung it over my shoulder, perpendicular to the sling bag. I headed out from my home, up Portola Avenue, with my destination of Mount Davidson. I stopped a couple of times as Portola climbs up providing a fantastic view of downtown San Francisco to the Northeast, but made a pretty good pace overall. Once I passed Evelyn Way, just past the highest portion of Portola, I noticed an SFPD squad car go screaming by, lights on, but no audible siren. “That’s odd, they must be in a big hurry to something…”, I thought, then remembered that I hadn’t yet eaten that day, and having just passed a Starbucks, decided I would turn around and pick up a chocolate chip cookie before continuing on my hike to Mt. Davidson.
As I turned around, I heard the squall of tires as the police car had quickly done a 180 in order to head back the same direction I was headed. They screeched to a halt in front of me, and the driver and passenger officers emerged from the car, guns drawn. The driver pointed his Sig handgun in my direction, and the passenger held a shotgun pointed at me, as well. No part of me figured all of this was for my benefit, so I turned to see what was behind me that they were pointing their weapons at, only to discover there was nothing behind me. This was for me.
“Hands up, hands up”, the driver shouted. I put my hands up.
“Get down on the ground”, he followed, and so I did. Knees first. Then he instructed me to lay face down, and interlace my fingers behind my head. I did this, as well. I told myself to stay calm, and really had little problem doing so, though this may have been the conditioned result of having been about two weeks out of fresh firearms training, where, as students, we each played the role of apprehender and apprehended, with weapons loaded with Simunitions, which, while not necessarily deadly, were pretty painful when they hit you. Had I not already blown through a great deal of internal adrenaline in that class, this situation might have been a little more physically stressful for me.
So I stayed calm, and answered each direction with a polite “Yes, sir”. They asked me what was in my bag, seeing the tripod on the rifle strap and the sling bag under it, and I told them it was camera equipment. The driver asked to search the bag, and having nothing to hide, I said, “Absolutely, sir, search away.” The passenger with the shotgun continued to train his aim on me while the pistol-wielding driver gently pulled my bag and tripod over my shoulder so he could move them both away from me before searching them.
During this time, an elderly Asian woman was walking up the sidewalk, and came upon the officers detaining me, at which point she started to walk in between myself and the shotgun holding officer. He told her to back away, which she didn’t seem to understand, and then he told her again, more loudly, to BACK UP. She continued to proceed forward, and that’s when my adrenaline response finally kicked in, as I felt that this woman’s lack of comprehension of the instructions she was given was going to actually get me killed. The officer took one step towards her, moving the shotgun away from me and aiming it at her feet when she finally got the message, and decided to walk completely around on the other side, at which point I calmed down a little bit more, noticing that metallic taste in my mouth I had become accustomed to a couple weeks prior.
After she had passed, the bag-searching officer finished inspecting the contents of my pack, and content that I was not an active threat, told me it was OK to sit up, and returned my bag to me. As it turns out, the SFPD had received a call from a “concerned citizen” reporting a “scary looking white male carrying an Uzi on his back, headed up Portola”. They explained that, given the recent events in Oakland (Lovelle Mixon, already a convicted felon, shot a number of officers one week prior to this particular Saturday), they didn’t know what they were up against, and when the citizen reported seeing “an Uzi”, they figured they were likely outgunned. I understood this, and they were very polite and professional about making sure I understood why they had stopped me, that they were sorry for the misunderstanding, and that if I had any concerns, I should feel free to contact their department, for which they gave me a card. I was just as polite, in return, for a couple of reasons. First, I could envision myself in their position. They didn’t mean me any harm, they had reason to think I might be up to no good. It wasn’t a good reason to think that (as whoever made the call was the one that put them in this position by mistaking a camera tripod for an Uzi), but they were able to determine that fact once they saw for themselves what I had with me. The other reason is because, by being polite for the whole experience, I reduced the conception of myself as a threat to them. With both officers already on edge, the last thing I needed to do was be panicky or aggressive in return. Politeness served to defuse the situation, and as a result, I’m alive today, having never been shot with either handgun or shotgun.
Random Animosity on the Train
Not that long ago, in preparation for attending a media event for a new long range shooting school, I needed to obtain 200 rounds of .308 ammunition as part of my packing list. Since there is nowhere to buy that sort of thing in San Francisco, I decided to make a trip on CalTrain down to Mountain View, where there was a retailer who had what I needed in stock. I found a seat on the upper deck of the Baby Bullet train, and put my empty backpack on my lap, so as not to occupy any unnecessary space, in the event the train would become more crowded. Two stops later, an elderly black women of about 75-80 years of age got on, and took the seat across from me. I gave her the courtesy smile when she sat, and she shot me a grimace in return. Fantastic. I went back to minding my own business, and looking out the window.
This was the week after Baltimore had erupted in rioting, which I wouldn’t have thought was pertinent to random people who didn’t know each other in the Bay Area, two thousand plus miles West of where those events had taken place, but I would be wrong in this assumption. About five minutes into the next leg of the train journey, I heard the old woman say, “What’s a GPS?” I wasn’t sure that she was even talking to me, so I looked away from the window, towards her, and sure enough, she’s glaring at me, and asks the same question again.
“What’s a GPS?”
Thinking that was a terribly random question to be asked by someone I don’t know, I notice that the focus of her glare is my t-shirt. I glance down, not remembering what I was wearing that day, to discover I’m wearing a “GPS Sniper School” t-shirt, dark blue with a small gold GPS logo and the descriptive text under it.
“Oh, you mean the t-shirt; GPS is the name of a long range shooting school.”
She continues glaring, and asks, “Who do you shoot?”
“I don’t shoot human beings. I shoot steel targets at great distances.”
Then she offers, “Well, that’s good. I’ve got two black grandchildren, and if you shot them, I’d have to shoot you back.”
Many possible responses crossed my mind. I could have told her that, so long as her grandchildren don’t try to kill me, I will never shoot them. I could have told her that if I was employing what I learned at that school, neither she nor her grandchildren would even see me if I was tasked with shooting them, as I’d be a thousand yards away in a well-constructed urban hide. I could have told her that, as a matter of general principle, assuming that I might shoot her grandchildren, much less assuming that I would shoot them because they were black, just because I’m white, is offensive as hell, and not something that is a good assumption to make about a human being you’ve never met, much less one who is trained in the use of firearms, and further, that threatening to “shoot that person back” is an even worse idea. I could have told her that she shouldn’t let the media work her into a frenzy about some event that happened in a city she doesn’t live in, across the country, that has zero actual effect on her life.
Instead, I told her to have a nice day, smiled as politely as I could, and turned back to looking at the passing scenery outside the window.
Sometimes, you won’t be able to talk someone down from their pre-staged position of angst or aggressive posturing with politeness. That woman was determined to hate me, and I can’t accurately say why. I could guess, but it’d be a guess, at best. What I knew was that I hadn’t harmed that woman, and whatever grief she wanted to direct at me, I wasn’t going to allow her to rationalize it by giving her the same in kind. I also knew she wanted to have a verbal altercation, and by denying her that, I probably pissed her off even more. That amused me.
But beyond that, responding to her grief-giving with politeness was the best option, because it was the right option. That woman, no matter what delusions of grandeur she suffered in the hypothetical battle of force she laid out in her mind, was not a threat to me. She didn’t need to be treated like a threat, despite her rudeness and short-sightedness. She has to live with being her, and I have to live with being me, and at the end of the day, I feel pretty good about having been polite to her, where I’d imagine she walked away frustrated, probably looking for the next person she could to pick a fight with. I’d hate to have to carry that sort of thing around with me.