Punching Down

PunchUpI saw something the other day that made me really angry, in that “what, were you raised in a woodshed or something?” sort of way. Prolonged, self-involved, privileged rudeness makes me on-beyond-cranky. And as I watched this behavior continue I realized that the perpetrator really had no idea of what he was doing.

I was at a cafe, writing (I have said elsewhere that getting out of the house and away from its distractions is a must for me). There were others there, also working diligently, drinking coffee or nibbling on pastries. I work here frequently enough to know the staff by name; it’s a comfortable little joint.

About half an hour after I get there a man comes in and takes a seat. He’s older than some of the customers, younger than me; wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase (the other occupants are more the beanie-jeans-and-backpack sort). He plugs in his laptop and phone and gets to work. Has a couple of phone calls which he carries on a little too loudly, but that happens.

When he ends a call our waitress goes over to see what he’d like to order. She’s a middle-aged Korean woman, deceptively young looking, petite. Her English is fluent but accented, and her voice is soft. When she asks him what he’d like to order he doesn’t look up, just says “Nothing right now.” A look flashes across the waitress’s face: I think she recognizes that he’s going to be trouble. She asks if perhaps he’s waiting for someone. “No, I just don’t want anything right now,” he snaps. She is barely on his radar, an intrusion. But this is not the library; the price folks pay for taking up space is to buy a beverage or a scone or something. Maybe he missed that bit in the manual? He goes back to his laptop.

The waitress attends to some stuff behind the counter, says hi to a regular who comes in to get a latte to go, busses a table after its occupant leaves. Then she goes back to The Guy and asks if he’s ready to order now. “I told you I don’t want anything,” he snaps. He doesn’t even look up; it’s as if she doesn’t rate eye contact. She asks, quietly, if he will be ordering something soon. The café is filling up, it’s getting close to lunchtime, and he’s taking up a two-top that could have paying customers at it (she doesn’t point this out, but it’s clear to me, at least). “I don’t know,” he says. “Later.” She walks away again.

And ten minutes later she cycles back to The Guy. “May I take your order?” “I’ll let you know when I have an order,” he tells her, in what has now become a really bullying tone. And she says, quietly but firmly, that unless he’s going to order something she’ll have to ask him to leave the table for someone who will be eating.

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m a fucking customer, for Christ’s sake.” He goes off on her, threatens to tell her boss, he’ll order when he’s goddamned fucking ready, back off, etc. I can’t even tell you exactly what he says because it’s nonsense; he’s defending taking a space that he hasn’t paid for, because it’s him, see? Don’t you dare inconvenience me when I’m being selfish.

“We’re a small place, there isn’t much room. It’s not my rule,” she says.

He gets to his feet. He’s a tall guy, not heavy but maybe 8-10 inches taller than she is, and clearly intending to use his height to intimidate. “I’ll order when I’m ready,” he says, looking down at her.

After a minute she shrugs. “Okay. Thank you.” Is it worth her time to argue with him? Probably not.

Meanwhile The Guy sits down and looks around him as if expecting a round of applause. Look how I put that $12.50-an-hour waitress in her place! Look what a big tough guy I am. He gets nothing of the sort from the rest of us. The guy with the reddish stubble and gray beanie was half-way to his feet, ready to intervene, during the last exchange; he’s extra sweet to the waitress when she comes over with his change; I order a second cup of tea, just so I can be a pleasant interaction for her.

Once or twice in the next few minutes I see the waitress look over at the Guy, as if gauging whether to try again. And then The Guy gets a phone call. As I said, he talks too loud. And because he has made himself the center of attention, I, at least, am listening. The person on the other end is Miranda, and from the guy’s point of view, at least, she has the power. His whole tone changes; he becomes–not servile, exactly, but close to.  He keeps trying to get a word in edgewise: “But Miranda… yes, I understand that. But… okay, but…” It goes on for several minutes, Miranda is giving him hell, and he is clearly in a position where he cannot punch up. When the call ends he sits there, jaw clenched. After a few minutes gathers up his laptop and his notes. He looks around the cafe–maybe for the waitress? or to see whether we have witnessed his ignominy–then gets up and leaves.

I did feel a little sorry for him–he’d gone from bully to bullied in the span of ten minutes. It’s easy to feel that this was karmic retribution, but I had no sense that he saw that he’d just received exactly what he’d doled out. In writing fiction, at some point The Guy would realize that he’d been an ass and a bully. In real life, I’m not at all certain that he’ll ever attain that level of self awareness.

I still feel that I should have done something heroic: maybe stood up and told him off (if I must be nearing the senior citizen demographic I should at least be able to use that gravitas as a power for good, right?) or otherwise come to her defense. I told the waitress I was sorry I hadn’t done so. “No, better you didn’t. Bringing someone else in would only make it more complicated.” So it appears I did the right thing, but…

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books
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15 Responses to Punching Down

  1. That is always the question.
    Not whether you can intervene — because you always can. (We are writers. We can think of something. Uzis, the Force, the Navy SEALS — the possibilities are literally infinite.)
    But whether you can intervene wisely. Achieving a good effect? That is very difficult. To belly-flop into the clusterfuck, to increase the omnishambles, that’s easy. To be wise, that’s the hard part.

  2. Bill Marcy says:

    Just from a philosophical point of view, what makes you think that that guy was not her karmic retribution for something she had done?

    • Zena says:

      It could be argued, then, that all workers in the service industry were vile, murderous cannibals in their past lives, based on the amount of abuse they have to endure on a daily basis from the “elevated” masses they serve….

      • Bill Marcy says:

        We experience what we need to experience. Your argument is as good as any other.

        • Zena says:

          That just reads as a specious excuse to treat others poorly in an attempt to cover our own gaping insecurities with a beautifully embroidered cloak of superiority.

          By extension, famine and war and abuse of any kind are justifiable because, of course, all of those small children suffering the agony of starvation or being ripped to shreds in drone attacks need to experience what they’re experiencing.

          Yes, an argument as good as any other, but a very bleak one. Personally, I don’t readily consent to be a player in that kind of cruel karmic puppetry.

    • As I say: I’m a bit of a regular in that café, and I have never seen her be unpleasant to anyone in the course of her job. Is it possible that after work she goes home and eats kittens? Sure. My only exposure to him was to a man who was clearly giving her a hard time because he felt he had the upper hand (the looking around for appreciation from the onlookers was a tell).

      • Bill Marcy says:

        I was never good at reading what was in another persons heart.

        • I cannot claim to read what was in his heart. And I acknowledge that my tendency, as a writer, is to tell myself a story about the behavior I witness. Nevertheless: the waitress, despite provocation, behaved well. He, with no immediate provocation, behaved badly, and made sitting there in the café unpleasant for everyone. My mother raised me to believe that if you’re having a rotten day you don’t spread it around, and you don’t pick on people who are not in a position to give as good as they get.

    • Clyto says:

      That’s not how Karma works. It’s not “punishment” from an unseen hand, it’s consequences in real time and space. Assholish behaviour often attracts Assholish responses.

      Peeing in the pool means you end up swimming in pee along with all the other swimmers.

      Recognising this empowers us to stay calm, to intervene without retaliating, and stop the wheel, even turn it in the reverse direction.

  3. Cat Kimbriel says:

    It’s always the question, Mad. Being a gracious customer who reminds her why her job is usually much better is doing something. I always want to do something, too, when I see things like that. But sometimes, said Puncher escalating a fight during lunch hour is not what the restaurant or staff need. I wish the idiot had had enough clarity to tip for the table.

    • I sometimes wonder if my NYC keep-your-eyes-down-you-don’t-know-if-he’s-got-a-gun street smarts keeps me from intervening. In fact, I have pretty good radar, and I don’t think I would have faced anything more than the transfer of his bullying to me. Still, I didn’t want to make the situation worse for her.

  4. Sam Keats says:

    Interesting connundrum–how does one respond? The rule for school bullying is this: the person being bullied cannot “deal with it.” If the bullied ignore the meanness, it continues. If the bullied walk away, they are vulnerable. If they speak up they can be publicly humiliated.

    Who does have the power then? The bystanders. What can they do? They can call ignore or interrupt what’s called relational bullying, i.e. gossip. “I don’t like that kind of talk.” or “Stop that mean talk.” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean to say that. Let’s talk with them,” or even, “I’m going over there.”

    They can go up to the bullied and ask them to come and play, so they bully doesn’t have to walk away from the bullied, alone, vulnerable.

    Every step involves removing the drama and the power of the drama, and removing the power that bully has over the victim.

    I have often found that, as an adult, I can use those rules in interactions with others. I’m trying to think how they would work in this case? Could I come up and stand beside the person who is being bullied, say–“just wanted to know if you need anything?”

    Could I tell the bullied afterwards that I hated what that person did and I would like to know what I could do in the future?

    Could I could quietly stand up and go find the manager?

    Any ideas?

  5. Sam Keats says:

    by the way, Madeleine, I’m so glad that you care enough to worry about it.

    I had another thought–a very, very kind one. What if, I came to stand beside the waitress and say, in my most kind voice, “Sir, I would like to treat you to a drink. It’s the policy of this place that in we order at least a drink to sit at the table, and I would love for this first time to be my treat.” It would have to be done without sarcasm.

    I might, if I had the funds in my pocket, try trust such a thing, as a wild experiment. Especially in a place I knew well. Someone so blind might be startled awake.