Tuesday, June 19 , 2018, 3:08 am | Fair 57º


Susan Estrich: Recalling a Metal Maxim when Impatience Fuels Fury at the Pumps

Encountering conduct unbecoming of a fellow human being spurs a drive down Memory Lane

I was on my way to the hospital last week to sit in the waiting room for six or eight hours while a family member was having surgery when I realized I had no gas. Running out of gas while you are taking someone to or (worse) home from the hospital is not good. I stopped at the gas station to fill up.

While doing so, I realized I didn’t have any cash, which is also not a good thing when you are headed into the uncertain world of hospitals (not to mention hospital parking lots). So I headed to the ATM, got some cash, looked at my watch and jumped into the car so I wouldn’t be late.

Unfortunately, for the first time in 40 years of driving, I forgot to take the gas pump out, meaning I drove away with it, pulling the cord right out, along with my gas cap. I stopped. The gas station attendant came out. I told him it was my fault, that I was headed to the hospital and would pay for the damage to his pump. He could not have been nicer, more sympathetic, more understanding. We got through the paperwork in just a few minutes, and he kindly wished me luck with the rest of my day.

Not so the woman who was waiting to get gas at the now broken pump. She wouldn’t stop honking her horn and screaming at me (and ultimately the attendant). Dressed in her finest exercise wear, facing about a three-minute wait until one of the other cars pulled off, she exploded. How dare I make her late for her exercise class? She didn’t let up until I told her the pump was broken.

When I was 16 years old, I drove my father’s car into the planter that was next to our driveway. When I got the courage to tell him, he said to me what his father had said to him the first time he banged up my grandfather’s car: “it’s only metal.” It is.

A few years ago, a woman rear-ended me. Rear-enders are, we all know, always the other person’s fault. The woman got out of the car; we asked each other if we were all right; she apologized. I told her not to worry about it, and she gave me her parents’ number, saying that would be the best way to get in touch once I had an estimate.

When I called a week or so later, her mother told me she had died. She was dying when she hit me. Her mother thanked me for having been gracious and kind to her daughter at a time when she was distracted and terrified. I told her mother it was her daughter who had been gracious and kind, that the cars were just metal, that I was so sorry for her loss, and that there was, in fact, no damage to pay for.

I thought of that brave and decent woman as the woman in gym clothes screamed at me on that morning last week. What was so important that she would scream at a person who, as it turned out, was on her way to the hospital — the same hospital where, almost a year to the day, I lost my beloved friend, Kath? Didn’t she understand that you never know, that a car is just a car, that five minutes is not a lifetime, not a delay you scream about?

She did not.

We live in an age where rudeness and cruelty are staples of online conversation, staples that have slipped into everyday life, staples that allow people who should know better to scream at others on the road, at the gas station and almost everywhere else, taking no responsibility for the impact of their words, not even stopping to wonder what it might be like to walk in the other person’s shoes.

Road rage? Did someone die? Has someone been hurt? Have we really been reduced to the point that we forget that traffic ultimately moves, the pumps will be free in a few minutes and cars are just cars?

I’ll pay for the pump. I need a new gas cap. It’s only metal.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >