Flippin’ the Bird

A version of this essay is performed in the podcast PeteBrownSays, Season 2 Episode 1.

I’m taking an improv class now. I know…it’s the trendy thing to do. But I’m taking it with my wife and we’re having fun with it, even if we’re the oldest ones in class.

One thing that’s fascinated me about improv is this: it doesn’t lend itself to setup-punchline humor, which is generally my bailiwick. But when you’re doing a scene with fellow improvisers, if you try to set up and then pay off with your punchline, you might get a laugh, but then you’re stuck in the scene, with nowhere to go. And you better hope another troupe member will come bail you out.

I found this a fascinating change, and as I thought about, it made me wonder about a very basic question, “why is improv funny?” And when I asked out teacher, he told me (after the requisite ‘ask a 100 improvisers and you’ll get a 100 different answers to this question disclaimer), told me that the humor derives from real moments of genuine human connection between well-formed characters. We’ve been working on how to get in detailed characters quickly in improv lately, so the answer lined up with what we’ve been learning. I heard the improviser Jimmy Carrane put it this way on his podcast ‘Improv Nerd”: You have to be real before you can be funny.

I was a creative writing major in my undergrad. And I have to admit, when I made this my major in my sophomore year, I totally thought I’d be taking classes like “Plots 101” and “100 ways someone can murder someone in your story (seminar).” And while there may be classes like that somewhere, at my university, I soon learned, we studied literary short fiction, and if I was to do my years of study the disservice of boiling it down to one takeaway, it would be to let your stories be derived from character. In other words, instead of worrying about the plot or how it’s going to end, channel your imagination and deep contemplation into the creation of complex characters, and see where they lead you.

Which is kind of what my Improv teacher was talking about. He also talks about supporting each other in a scene, which is another of my struggles. Last week, we were doing an abstract exercise in which the class stood in a circle, and one person initiated action by making a gesture and saying a two syllable word. If he or she looked at you when doing this, your job was to replicate what they did as closely as possible to someone else. And as the move makes it way around the circle, it changes slightly over and over, until it ends up someplace totally different. It was like a game of telephone, but with gestures, and you were supposed to treat each gesture that was given to you as a gift.

A guy named Josh started us off by saying “Super” while he lifted his hand up with his index finger pointing to the ceiling. This was passed around for a while when I had this thought:

“I could change this from the index finger to the middle finger and then everybody would have to give everybody else the finger.”

For some reason, I thought this would be really funny. I’m not big on giving the finger, as this episode will explore, but as a youngest child, I am big on breaking rules.

But this was only my third class with this group, and I didn’t really feel like I was in a place with any of them where I could give them the finger. But my wife of 23 years…that was another story.

Now, I don’t really want to give my wife the finger. I’ve never done it in 23 years and can’t imagine that I ever would. She’s given me the finger more than a handful of times, but in general, when I reflect on these instances, I was likely being exceptionally obtuse about something.

My wife, too, is an oldest child, and in general a much better rule follower than me. And so it further occurred to me that if I simply changed one finger in the movement, and thus gave her the finger, not only would she have to turn and pass it on to someone else, if she was following the rules of the game, she’d have to treat my giving her the finger as a gift.

And I just don't think the universe gives you that kind of opportunity too often. What would happen if I did it? Would the blowback be intense? Would I be in the doghouse (my second home, by the way) if I broke the rules and exchanged one finger for the next? Should I?

I did it. And while it was really funny — my wife and most of the class laughed about it. It pretty much derailed the game we were in, and we had to do a restart. I ended up apologizing to the ensemble, and “the finger incident” as it has become known, has come up in each subsequent class, often like this:

Teacher asks a question about our roles in a scene.
Someone gives an improv-y answer about supporting each other. You bring a brick, they bring a brick, etc.
Then someone in class will go “What about that time Pete gave his wife the finger?”

I honestly don’t think that’s a legit question, by the way. I think they just wanted to bring up the finger incident again.

The reason I don’t give the finger is that I’m not a great driver, and driving, it seems, is the one activity in which there is an increased likelihood of finger giving and finger receiving for adults. We’ve grown out of the middle school and teenage years, when giving our friends the finger seemed to be more of a regular occurrence. We’re grown-ups now. We go to parties that have start and end times on the invitation and use I statements when working through differences with our kids.

I feel hurt when you give me the finger, for example.

Now, I want to tell you that I don’t think I’m a terrible driver. But I am an honest one, and honestly, sometimes I get lost in my head thinking about something and I forget where I’m going, or I fail to check in all directions and I might cut someone off or something. I suspect we all do this to some extent. Which is to say that I don’t think I make mistakes driving any more or less than the next guy, even if he won’t admit it.

But there certainly are those people (and maybe some of you) who secretly consider themselves God’s Gift to Driving, and as God’s appointed ambassador on Earth for Driving, these people feel it is incumbent on themselves to point out or try to correct everyone’ else’s driving mistakes. You can sniff these people out, by the way, if they say something like “Nobody in ‘name of my city’ knows how to fuckin’ drive.” They’ll pull up next to you at a red light, roll down their window and tell you something you did wrong.

I often wonder where these people took Driver’s Ed. Because I took in high school, and it was a shitty experience, and my kids are now taking it and it doesn’t appear to have improved in the slightest over the past 30 years. Is there some sort of Ivy League of Driver’s Ed that they graduated from? Why do they feel like it's their job to correct other people’s driving?

I have a theory about the kind of person who feels the need to correct your driving: I secretly believe that they’re all just frustrated engineers, people who implicitly understand how a system of traffic is supposed to work, and, fed up with the imprecise world, have to direct their rage at those of us who cut corners, sometimes literally, with beeps, and shouts and yes, on occasion, middle fingers.

I also secretly suspect that these most vocal of drivers are also our worst drivers, and that they stay on offense to cover up their own shitty driving. There’s a saying I learned when I lived in Russia that roughly translates to an empty vessel makes the most noise, although I’ve since learned this is commonly attributed to Plato. I’ve always taken it to mean that the people with the least amount to say, the least amount of substance to offer, are also the ones talking the loudest and most frequently. It’s definitely true in politics, and often in corporate life. Perhaps it rings true for driving, too.

In any case, I’ve always felt that we as a society need a simple hand gesture that means “My fault, Sorry!”

You know, kind of a “My bad” gesture.

In sports, athletes do this by patting their chest with an open palm and saying “that’s on me. On me, people,” but unfortunately, that sign doesn’t work when you’re driving because no one can see it. I’d love it if I had a button on my dash that makes the words “My bad — So Sorry” light up on the back of my car. I think a lot of middle fingers would go unflipped if an angry, wronged driver saw that I recognize the mistake I made, and am sorry for it. Then again, my insurance company might track how many times I press it and use the info to determine my rate. #conspiracytheory

I mentioned that my wife has given the finger to me on a number of occasions. If she gets cut off or someone drives unsafely near her, she’ll give that car the finger, but she does it under the dash, where no one can see it. Which I supposed is a good system, if you need to do something with your anger. When I get cut off, I try not to be angry about it, because, you know, karma and what goes around comes around and all that. But say I need to get three lanes over to an exit lane and no one in any of those lanes seems inclined to let me in…I’ll swear up a blue streak, which tends to surprise my kids, but I stop short of giving the finger.

Once, I accidentally cut someone off in a parking lot, and earned a loud horn blast because of it. Not even an angry blast. More of a “You’re about to hit me,” kind of blast. And then, he pulled up alongside of me at the next light. I locked my doors and prepared to bear some verbal abuse for my mistake. But he just gave me a look, and then held up two fingers in a peace sign.

I really like this. Because I was clearly wrong, and he was clearly mad, but he was able to make a gesture that somehow acknowledged that something had passed between us, but in the great scheme of things, was not the end of world, and we could part in peace to do better by our fellow humans. Peace!

If only that were always the case!

Have you ever cut someone off or made a similarly bad driving move, and then had them stuck behind you, or worse, pull up alongside you at a light? About two years ago, I made a rolling right turn at a 4-way stop, and didn’t realize that the cargo van with a ladder on top, positioned opposite my turn had started on into the intersection. I was already committed when I did realize this, and so I punched the gas and pushed on through ahead of him.

Not great, right? Not the end of the world, but not great.

But, man, was this guy hot about it. he was a 20-something ginger and he was screaming at me, laying on the horn and keeping a constant middle finger out of his window as we drove on. I could see his face getting redder and redder in my rear view mirror. I’m talking true road rage here, certainly way above and beyond what my transgression would seem to call for. What’s worse, we were on a two-lane road, one lane in each direction, and he kept darting into the opposite lane into oncoming traffic and trying to catch up and pull alongside me. I don’t know what he wanted to to do — run me off the road, scream at me through his window, take a shot at me? Those all seemed possible, given his state.

I remember stuff like this happening a lot when I was in high school. My posse of peeps would be leaving a concert, or a football game or even the movies, and another posse of juiced up boys would see us. There might be some posturing, and quite often a middle finger or two got thrown, kicking off some sort of insane car chase around the western suburbs. One time when my friend Chumley was driving, four dudes in Ford Escort, a Ford Escort of all things, came after us because they thought someone in our group gave them the finger. We hadn’t by the way, but have you ever gotten a vibe from a group that they didn’t really care about what actually happened, because really they just wanted to fight?

That’s the vibe this group gave off, in spades. I remember them pulling alongside us at one point and a little dude in the back leaning out the window with brandishing a tire iron. But it wasn’t the long skinny kid, though, that you could swing like a bat. It was one of those shaped like a cross, with two short rods welded together in the middle. Certainly could some damage, but also looked kind of difficult to wield.

That chase was a long and dangerous one, and went on and off the highway and hit some incredible speeds before the Ford Escort Assasins decided to move on to some other dismal goal in their shitty lives. I was there when my friend Chumley told his Dad about it. That certainly wouldn’t have been my choice, telling my Dad, but Chumley seemed to get along with his Dad well enough for this kind of conversation. And Chumley’s Dad just took the cigar out of his mouth and said “If that ever happens again, just drive to a police station.”

Ohhhh. Man. That would have made things way easier! And I think of Chumley’s Dad telling us this often, and in fact thought of him that very day two years ago when the irate ginger in a contractor’s van seemed hell bent on doing me ill. I drove to the police station, which was not far away, and I pulled in and parked, and Ginger Joe just kept on rolling by.

So if you happen to be a kid listening to this podcast, first of all, welcome, and second of all this ever happens to you, remember: drive to a police station.

My crew in high school was a pretty sociable bunch. We never looked for fights. The worst you could claim of us was that we were a “smashing pumpkins, TP your house” bunch of yahoos.

Which is why I was so perplexed one Sunday morning during my sophomore year when my parents told me, as I poured a bowl of Cheerios, that my friends had smashed out the windows in our car overnight.

“Yeah, right,” I said.

“Really,” my mom insisted. “Dad saw them through the window.”

“Knock it off,” I said. “It’s not funny.”

“Go see for yourself,” my Dad said.

So I put my spoon down and walked out to the driveway, where our faux wood-paneled station wagon was parked. Indeed the back and rear side windows had been smashed out.

I was dumbstruck at this moment. Why would my friends do this? Had I done something, somehow wronged someone so badly that this was an acceptable retaliation? It was an unsettling feeling. Who did my Dad see? And through what window? As far as I knew, none of our windows provided a view of the driveway.

So I walked back inside and said:

“I don't know who you think you saw, but my friends wouldn’t do this.”

I actually think ‘said’ is a little too tame here. It’s likely that it came out in that slightly shouty, clipped voice I have when I’m trying and failing to hold back a wave of anger.

It was enough for my parents to drop the charade, which they thought was hilarious, by the way, and tell me what really happened. Which is that my sisters and their friends had taken the car to a concert the previous night at a venue that sat pretty much in the middle of a cornfield well south of town. And afterward, while slowly waiting in the long line of bumper to bumper traffic between the venue and the highway, they got entangled in an imbroglio with the car behind them, an occupant of which got out with a tire iron in hand, the long skinny kind you can swing like a bat, and smashed the back rear side windows, both which were situated around the way, way back of the station wagon, where the third row seat faced backward, and where two people sat, one of whom, as it turns out, had given the finger to the car behind them.

Those are the highlights of the story as relayed to me by my parents, and my sisters and their friends all came through this business OK. I know there’s more to the story, some stuff involving a flung can of beer and some beat-up boyfriends, but I’m not going to get into it, nor do I have it in me to call up my sisters and ask, so sharing this story at all is more of an ask forgiveness rather than permission deal, although I do wonder if the occupants of that way, way back learned a lesson that night about flipping the bird, or if it was something they continued to do in their lives.

I, too, learned a lesson about flipping the bird the hard way, but a few years before my sisters had. I’m thinking I was somewhere in the middle school years when this happened, sixth or seventh grade. I had two buddies in my neighborhood, Shawn and Bunky, and we played a lot of backyard football and driveway baseball and just about any sport you can imagine. We even invented a sport called roofball which was kind of a volleyball where you bopped one of those bouncy rubber footballs onto Shawn’s garage roof, and then the other player had to bop it back up there when it came down. It was a pretty fun game, now that I think about it.

We also had a neighborhood swimming pool at the end of our street, an indoor pool, which I’m now recognizing as quite nice and am appreciating far more than I did when I was a kid. Shawn and I had gone to the pool and were walking back home on a chilly, gray day in the fall. It seemed most of the leaves were down but hadn’t yet been raked back up. A middle-of-the-week day, glazed with raindrops and the prospect of snow.

As we walked, we heard someone calling out to Shawn from across the street and behind us, and we turned and saw two kids Shawn knew from school. Shawn and I didn’t go to the same school. I attended a Catholic school in the next town over, so I only kind of knew who these two kids were — a tall, bigger kid we’ll call Seymour and a short and feisty sidekick of his we’ll call Scotty.

For whatever reason, after they called to us, Shawn said to me “just keep walking.”

So we did. And they called out again “Hey! Hey!”

And in response, I lifted up my arm and gave them the finger without turning around to look at them. A walk-off, going away reverse finger if you will.

I don't know why I did it. To this day, I have no idea what they were calling us for. I only know that a few seconds later, I heard heavy, rapid footsteps crossing the street behind me, and I turned and saw them charging after us. So naturally, I ran.

Shawn didn’t run, and they sped past him and caught up to me a few driveways down. Scotty leaped onto my back, and I ducked and rolled him over onto the concrete apron. But before I could reset myself, before I could even try apologizing or working out some solution to our problem, Seymour grabbed me from behind, pinning both my arms behind my back. And Scotty stood up and socked me good right in the mouth.

Have you ever taken a punch in the mouth, a direct, bare-knuckle punch with real malice behind it? What you remember most is not the pain of it, but the sound of it, the hard clank of bone on bone that rings out from inside your head. It grabs your attention pretty clearly.

I managed to wrestle free of Seymour after this punch, and I picked up my gym bag and swung it wildly at Scotty to keep him at bay. And in the back of my mind, I registered an old man’s voice shouting “KNOCK THAT OFF!”

I turned towards the voice, and an older man, I’d say retirement age at least, was coming out of his doorway. I remember his knee-length camel hair coat and newsboy hat. He was yelling at Seymour “What’d you do that for?”

And I remember Seymour, big old Seymour, hands in his back pockets, yelling back:

“He flipped us the bird!”

“He did what?”

“Flipped the bird!”

“The what?”

In answer, Seymour flipped the bird at him and said: “You know, the bird!”

I didn’t stick around for further debate. I trotted away down the street towards my house, looking over my shoulder once to see Seymour and Scotty crossing back over to the other side and heading away, and then in the distance, my friend Shawn, walking along. He had stopped and watched the fight from a few driveways back, but I guess (and I’ve never asked him about this), I guess he assumed I had made my bed, so I was the one who had to sleep in it.

I went up to my room when I got home. Didn’t tell my parents, and the bruise on my jaw wasn’t too noticeable. I likely buried my nose in a book and tried to forget the whole thing had happened.

But around 8:30 that night, my parents called me to come to the phone. (Um, millennials, back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for a house to only have on or two landlines installed, and you had to lease your telephone from phone company. Ours was in the kitchen, an orange rotary mounted on the wall near the calendar. You had to physically go to that room to answer it, and once you did, you could only go as far as the cord would let you.

“Hello?” I said.

A voice said: “let’s go get them.”

It was my friend Bunky, who had heard about the incident from Shawn, and was not going to let it pass.

“Who?” I asked.

“Seymour!” he replied “Scotty! I know where they live. They’re not getting away with this.”

Bunky was Italian, by the way. At the time, he wore an Italian horn around his neck like Rocky, a movie which he and I had watched, I’m not exaggerating here, 25 or 30 times.

After I hesitated, he said, “Look, just grab a hammer and meet me at my house.”

“A hammer?”

“Just c’mon, Peter” he said. “We’re going to make this right.”

I want to tell you how that line hit me. Because it hit me hard, like a punch to the mouth, a feeling of total and utter support, what my Improv teacher might call a moment of genuine human interaction. Bunky didn’t care that I had set this thing in motion by flipping the bird. That didn’t bother him one bit. All he cared about was that his friend got a little throttled by two other kids, and that was just not OK by him.

“I think we can let it go,” I said. “I mean, it was kind of my fault to begin with.”

“Don’t,” he said. “C’mon!”

“Really. It’s OK,” I said, and then I added: “Do you want to go rent Rocky?”

It was tough to say no to Rocky. We were always up for it.

After a moment, he exhaled and said “all right.” Then he added “But I wish I’d been there, you know. I just wish I’d been there.”

“I know it,” I told him. “But really, everything’s fine.”

And after that, we likely hoofed it up the street to Movie Madness and rented Rocky on VHS, bought some pops at Minotti’s and headed back to one of our homes to watch it.

The night of that phone call was probably the peak of my friendship with Bunky. He moved out of the neighborhood shortly after that, after which we remained pretty much OK friends. He worked hard to phase out the nickname Bunky around that time, and so most people only know him as Brian. In high school, we drifted into different groups of friends but often saw each other at parties and games and events and stuff. We were always still friendly, if not close friends anymore.

So when I say that night was the peak of my friendship with Bunky, I think what I mean is that it was the peak of my childhood. Thereafter I had stepped into a world with real consequences for your actions, went on to wrestle through the complications of puberty, the mystery of girls and the cage match that is middle school.

And just as I think of Chumley’s dad telling us to drive to the police station, I think of this phone call with Bunky when I’m trying my best to support someone through whatever it is they’re dealing with…a lost job, a car accident, cancer, grief, being married to me, you know. Traumas.

I think of picking up the phone and hearing those words, devoid of context yet perfectly on-point:

Let’s go get ’em. Just c’mon. Let’s go get ‘em.

And off into the world we go, vigilantes on ten speeds, roaming the western suburbs of Cleveland with naught but vengeance on our minds.

And also, a hammer? WTF, am I right? I’m glad I never landed on Bunky’s bad side.