"Wait, Wait…Don't Taunt Me!"

August 9th, 2006

August 6, 2006
The Funny Pages | True-Life Tales
He Goes Down Looking

The guy in front of us at the White Sox vs. Red Sox game was standing up. The people in front of him were sitting. The people two rows behind him, sufficiently elevated, were sitting. Thus, he was blocking the view of one person, the person in the seat directly behind him: my wife, Beth.

She activated her considerable Blond Charm and asked him to sit down. The Guy smiled at her, his reflective sport sunglasses giving him a buglike mien.

“Are you kidding?” he snapped. “With Paul Konerko up, one out and the bases loaded? Sit down? You should be standing up!” He turned back to the game, remaining both upright and opaque.

What should I do? On my other side sat our 8-year-old, Rose. Would she someday write an autobiographical play in which my failure to insist that the Guy sit down take on the same mythic resonance as Willy Loman's Woman from Boston? “Mama couldn't see, Papa!” she would shout in the climactic scene. “Paul Konerko was up, and she couldn't see! And you didn't do anything!”

But Rose was concentrating on her journal, writing down rhyming titles for her projected series of historical adventure novels: “Wackie Jackie,” in which her characters go back in time and play ball with Jackie Robinson.

Paul Konerko popped out. The Guy sat down, deflated. Beth tapped him on the shoulder and said, with a big smile, “Well, that was worth standing up for, wasn't it?”

I should point out that my wife has the most disarming smile in the world. My daughters, happily, have inherited it, and I am encouraging them to pursue careers that will make full use of that gift, like talking elderly people out of their savings.

The Guy turned around, considered Beth's charming smile and merry blue green eyes and let loose with a lengthy and considered obscenity, in the form of a suggestion.

As a lifestyle, spending your time drowning in self-recrimination for your lack of action has its drawbacks, but it does prepare you for the rare occasion when a chance to try again presents itself. I riposted with a similar obscenity, with the pronouns and tenses artfully switched around so that now the unprintable suggestion applied to him. And so many had thought my Harvard B.A. in English literature had been wasted!

I invited him to choose from among the many empty seats in our section, all of them far enough away to stand without bothering us.

He glared at me – I assume – from behind his mirrored lenses. “I've had these seats for 12 years,” he said. “How long have you had yours?”

Truthfully? About two hours. I fell silent, which is just one more indication that I was wise not to pursue a career as a cage-match fighter.

“Would you please just turn around, and we can go back to having a good time?” Beth asked.

“I'm having a great time,” he said. “Let's chat. Let's have a good talk, or anything else you want to do.”

My daughter was carefully writing down “The Night Before the Light,” her title for a novel about the invention of the light bulb.

But this was a Confrontation. I had to do something. Surprisingly for a person who does radio, I opted for visual comedy. I leaned in and used his reflective lenses as a mirror.

“Hang on a second,” I said. “Want to arrange my hair.”

Now, I have very little hair. In retrospect, I believe I was making his attribute subservient to my own utility, a gesture akin to wiping my nose on his shirt. And, by invoking an imaginary need to do so (to reinvoke the metaphor, it was akin to wiping my nose on his shirt when I had no nose to begin with), I calculated (or, rather, calculate now, as I try to justify a completely pathetic gesture), I'd be adding a nice frisson of additional humiliation.

“You don't have any hair!” he shot back.

Aha. I had reduced him to the level of bald jokes. There was some satisfaction in that. Some very, very little satisfaction.

The Guy and I stared at each other. At least, I stared at him; behind his glasses, he might have been weeping, I really don't know. Beth leaned forward and said, “Would you please, please just turn around?” The Guy took a second to contemplate his wide range of possible actions. Then he turned around.

Beth had defused the situation by simply giving him the out of appearing gracious. I was, as I often am, amazed and gratified by her wisdom and restraint. Then she said to me in a full and clear voice: “Don't be bothered by him, Peter. He's just a tiny, tiny man who has to pick fights to make himself feel better about his awful, sad little life.” This third-person commentary while the third person is present is a devastating tactic of Beth's, long familiar to me, but my admiration was leavened by the fear that the Guy would now shoot us.

He did nothing.

We enjoyed the rest of the game, which the White Sox went on to lose. Rose never noticed a thing, busy as she was with inventing the title “Crazy Cannons.” She told me it would be a story about how her heroes help avoid a war by making everyone laugh.

I hope they don't pretend to comb their hair using the other guy's sunglasses. It doesn't work.

Peter Sagal is the host of “Wait, Wait. . .Don't Tell Me!” on NPR.

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