Many years ago, I saw a patient who had a number of problems, the only one of which I remember now was alcoholism. He was a nice guy, I remember thinking, considering he was in the throes of a divorce—which often brings out the worst in people. But when he drove an automobile, he turned into somebody else. We all know about “road rage.” Some people weave in and out of traffic at high speed to catch up with someone who might have cut them off. Then they lean out the window to tell the other guy off, or, more commonly, settle for making an obscene gesture in his direction. This man, however, was not inclined to outbursts of temper, and certainly not violence; but he routinely tailgated. I tried to reason with him.
“You really ought not to do that,” I told him. “First of all, it’s rude. You are purposely trying to make someone feel uncomfortable, and that’s not right. And it’s not safe. Suppose you get behind somebody who decides to give you a hard time by purposely slowing down suddenly. You can run into him. And since you still drink from time to time, I don’t think your reaction time is so good.”
He nodded his agreement, but I was experienced enough, even back then, to know that a patient agreeing with me in my office was no indication of how he would behave later on. He proved that point by coming in a few weeks later with an adventure story about his driving home from work the previous day: (The wording may be not quite right, but the story is correct.)
“I was on the Parkway. This guy was going real slow in the left lane, and I was in a rush. So, I got up close behind him—I know I shouldn’t have, but that’s what I did—and I beeped my horn. So , the guy slowed down a little, just to spite me—just like you said. I flashed my lights, and he slowed down some more. Finally, I gave up. I swung into the right lane to pass him, but he moved over to stay in front of me. So, I moved back the other way. And so did he. We went back and forth a few times, until I got around him on the left and sped away. I was going 80 miles an hour…”
“On the Bronx River Parkway?“
“Yeah, I know. That’s too fast for that road. Anyway, this guy comes after me. He catches up to me in the next lane. At 80 miles an hour! He opens his window and he takes out a hatchet! And he starts chopping on my car with a hatchet! I got away somehow at the next exit.”
What impressed me most about this story was the fact that there was a guy driving around with a hatchet on the front seat. Just in case. That was before I met the Boys from the Bronx.
The Boys from the Bronx. Apparently there is a section of the Bronx in which it is customary growing up to carry a weapon in the back seat, usually a bat. Although some prefer a golf club. I had a patient who was a passenger in a car which was cut off by another car for no particular reason. A big guy got out of the car in front carrying a bat. My patient’s friend got of his car with a golf club. The guy with the bat swung first, missing. The guy with the club did not miss. The fact that the guy with the bat swung first– and there were witnesses– was important. Because he swung first, my patient’s friend only had to spend 7 years in jail for involuntary manslaughter.
I had another patient who carried a bat around for thirty years! It came in handy finally when he took umbrage at a parking meter that caused him to get a ticket. He punished the meter by battering it to death with the bat.
I always warn patients , “There’s always somebody out there crazier than you.” That’s one of my maxims. Two other maxims: “You should always be looking for a new job” and “It is possible to be too rich or too thin.”
P.S. Shortly after the hatchet incident I found myself watching a made for T.V. movie that told a variation on this story. It was directed by a newcomer named Spielberg. “The Duel” is an account of a driver trying to pass someone in a truck. This annoyed the truck driver, who spent the rest of the movie trying to kill him. It’s a very good movie, if you can download it from someplace. (c) Fredric Neuman