Illustration: Kyle Webster
The other day, while taking the World’s Dumbest Dog for a walk in Andersonville, I paused as she nestled into a cozy spot on a neighbor’s lawn to do the one thing at which she’s particularly skilled. The big lug has never been much of a trailblazer, and the patch she picked was already a minefield of other pooches’ deposits. When the deed was done, I bagged my dog’s output, dropped it into a nearby dumpster, and continued on my way.
“Hey!” the neighbor called behind me. “You gonna pick up after your dog?”
I immediately shifted into attack mode, declaring with outsize indignation that I had done my duty. Soon we were screaming at each other about silly things that two grown men probably ought to be far beyond. The dog just looked embarrassed.
The sudden hate between my neighbor and me, strangers a minute earlier, was real and visceral, and it multiplied with his realization that I was not a garden-variety poo leaver but rather a sociopath petty enough to actively choose which excreta to pick up and which to leave. Neither of us backed down, but no one was willing to commit to a fistfight, so we went our separate ways.
As you read this, similar situations are exploding in every nook and cranny of Chicago. In movie theatres, buses, and ATM lines, strangers fight over ridiculous situations, taking it personally and sprinting toward conflict where they once avoided it. I’m not talking about gun violence, which is a whole other column, but rather the inane everyday confrontations between people that elevate minor inconveniences into massive arguments. We’re bursting with road rage and sidewalk rage and bathroom rage and every other kind of rage.
Why so angry, Chicago?
We can kid ourselves that we’re the same courteous Midwesterners who wait our turn and hold the door open for each other, but something has changed. Oh, we’ll still hold the door open. But too many among us now expect a thank-you, and if we don’t get one, we might slam the door in your face. We’re angry at corporations, politicians, God, the CTA, you name it, but we have no access to them, so we take it out on each other.
I recently asked dozens of acquaintances: Have you experienced random moments of urban rage? Story after story emerged involving senseless hair-trigger attacks. Middle fingers. Spitting. Dark threats. The most personal insults you can imagine. Many of my responders were victims; others were perpetrators. One friend reported that he had so insulted a man in the car beside him by speeding past that the man caught up and hurled a chicken at my friend’s windshield. A whole, feathered, dead chicken. How angry do you have to be to throw a chicken at someone?
Another friend recounted the time he was trying to walk across a street at a four-way intersection, only to watch car after car run the stop sign. When he finally walked in front of a moving vehicle, the driver slammed on his brakes, blared his horn, and screamed, “It’s a funeral, asshole!”
That many of these incidents occur on the road comes as no surprise. According to the Department of Transportation, road rage incidents are up 170 percent since 2007; more than 1,000 deaths have been attributed to road rage in that time. We’ve all read about the phenomenon’s pathology, how cars are an extension of the self, how they embolden us with their illusion of anonymity, or how they represent our freedom and we react primitively when that freedom is threatened. Or maybe we’re just bigger jerks than we used to be.
“It’s been a staple throughout history that people think society has become ruder,” says Stephen Dinwiddie, a forensic psychiatrist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Certainly in a city there are more chances for people to bump up against one another and to misread social signs. But it’s also possible that social norms have changed over time and people no longer agree on what’s appropriate.”
Some individuals, Dinwiddie says, are wired for impulsive behavior and simply cannot restrain themselves. Studies have shown that up to 7 percent of the population suffers from something called intermittent explosive disorder, a mental condition in which patients periodically lose control and respond to tension with substantially out-of-proportion behavior.
I wonder if I am among that 7 percent. My mild disposition boils into a Hulk-like rage with little warning, often at the slightest provocation from strangers. It’s probably a good thing I happen to have the backbone of a bag of marshmallows and take out my frustrations on innocent inanimate objects. I once chased down a cab that had barreled through a red light into a busy crosswalk, sending pedestrians—including my daughter—diving in various directions. I punched the driver’s window, and the window won. Rock bottom came during an extended public battle with the smug owner of a Wi-Fi café over whether I should be allowed to put my feet on a chair. I surprised myself by arguing the most unreasonable of positions; I was less surprised when the dude threw me out and I punted the chair.
Every anger management quiz tells me the same thing: I am prone to anger problems. The website Psychology Today was particularly condescending, reminding me, “Some things just aren’t worth getting worked up about!” That only pissed me off.
Here is where I’m supposed to plead for sanity and relay a random act of kindness that gives me hope for us all. I’m obviously not the person to do that.
Dinwiddie says the first step in dealing with an anger problem is to figure out what is driving it. Whether I’m an aberration or the norm, a monster or a tired urban stereotype, I’m working on that. Until then, I’ll walk my dog on a different block.
Experienced an ugly automotive episode lately? Tell your story in the comments section below.