Obscure Physical Politics / by Dan Mayer

Two men pass each other on the street, moving in opposite directions, and due to pedestrian traffic or spatial limitations one or both will have to give way just a little to avoid a collision. Seems like a totally unremarkable situation, something common to anyone who lives in a city or visits a shopping mall, so why does it often feel like such weird little battle of wills? Is it just me, or is there an enormous amount of coded data getting pushed around when we navigate each other on the sidewalk?

I might be out of my mind. Let's just identify that possibility up front. Maybe I'm the only freak who finds himself making these peculiar calculations on my way to work. I doubt it. Watch closely and you'll see your fellows engaging in all manner of pantomime as they chose how not to bump shoulders.

Factors that go in to the decision to give (or demand) way: Velocity, mood, style of dress, race, relative mass, awareness, weather conditions, depth perception, emotional stability, etc. The progression of a shoulder pass is dictated by a muddled blend of physics and politics. It is as rich with meaning as the subtle manipulations of a handshake. 

So what's at stake? Two seconds of time and your pride. Which is to say that no matter who that oncoming person is, your evolved self should be polite and make room for them to pass. Bespectacled nerd late for class? Give up the right of way. Scruffy roughneck looking for trouble? Twist your torso and don't take the bait. Self-satisfied smug rich bastard yammering into an iPhone? It doesn't matter. Be polite and step out of the line of conflict. 

Do I always take my own advice? Of course not. Those three examples are all people I've bumped shoulders with in the last few months. In all three instances, I felt bad for the bump. The bespectacled nerd almost fell and I stopped and reflexively apologized. Kind of took the wind out of my sails. The roughneck called me a bitch and I told him to fuck off (without thinking, of course), and we stood there for a tense moment until he decided not to whack me in the noggin with his skateboard. Which would have hurt a lot more than the sting to my goofy pride I might have momentarily experienced after stepping out of his way. The smug rich bastard just kept on rolling as though we hadn't slammed into each other. Not satisfying.

Intentional but unasked-for physical contact is a political act. It feels a little '94 to point that out, but still. Getting out of someone's way is not backing down, it's demonstrating that you are both polite and sensible. 

So, again... if I'm the only person who has this weird issue, I apologize. Ever since I took control of my own Thorazine dosage things have been a little noisy in the attic.