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Stories that begin with, “I don’t usually drive like that,” tend not to end well.

But seriously, I don’t usually drive like that.

I braked well before the painted crosswalk, and saw the dad, standing far to the right – his arms stretched out protectively across three small children.

Yes, I was driving faster than I should have for an underground parkade. I was trying to get to the second level in time to mention something to a workmate before he got into his car. I caught him – rolled down the window and said what I needed to say.

Then I looked to the dad, who still hadn’t moved, apparently not sure of my intentions.

I waved him across, taking both hands off the steering wheel to demonstrate that I posed no threat. He looked at me, visibly angry. “Are you sure?” he asked sarcastically. “Please,” I said, and waved again.

I thought about it from his point of view; the building is home to a daycare centre, he has three young children in tow, and they emerged from the stairwell to the sound of my engine racing and headlights coming toward them.

He eventually crossed, shaking his head at me in apparent disgust, and looking over his shoulder to make sure his kids were well out of harm’s way.

Yes, I was an idiot, and I more than deserved the shame that washed over me.

A few days later and a few blocks away, I was at the hardware store buying, let’s say, a new shower head.

A person in front of me was waiting to pay for a similarly exciting purchase. A third person brushed by us to the second cash register, and was met immediately by a clerk who happily processed her purchase and sent her on her way.

I asked the woman in front of me if she was waiting for the key that was being cut. “No,” she told me, “just to pay.”

And yet, she let someone step in front of her in line and she said nothing.

I know, I could have said something – but third in line – not my job.

We’ve all been there. At the deli counter when the clerk asks, “Who’s next?” and we all look at each other, with only the selfish and the brave willing to step forward.

The bus stop where the last person to arrive is somehow the first one to board the bus.

The movie theatre where we’ll settle for a bad seat rather than ask a stranger to move over one.

It doesn’t have to be like this. On the Skytrain a while ago, a young man trying to make his way onto the train noticed the obvious and called out, “Hey, why don’t you guys move away from the door and into all of that empty space over there?”

It worked.

Reluctantly, people shuffled into the void and a handful more passengers were able to get on. I’ve never been big on heroes, but that dude may as well have been Batman.

A simple exchange can clear up a misunderstanding or diffuse a tense moment. This doesn’t happen, I think, because we hate talking to strangers. We’re taught to be wary of them from an early age, generally for good reason. But as adults moving through the world, our default position seems to be to conduct a threat assessment before we attempt to engage someone we don’t know in conversation.

Finally having the conversation can be liberating. It removes the burden of “I should have said …” and quiets our Seinfeldian internal monologue.

Back in the underground parkade, as dad was loading the kids into the minivan, I pulled over and rolled down the window. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “That was a stupid thing to do. I don’t usually drive like that. I was just trying to catch up to a friend.”

His response: “That’s okay, man. I’m just sensitive today. Thanks for stopping.”

We wished each other well and I drove away feeling good about the exchange, rather than replaying the scenario in my head the whole way home and reliving my embarrassment.

Somehow, we both managed to suppress our stranger danger, express some empathy, and even muster a little sincerity.

I’d like to live in a city where that was the rule, rather than the exception.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver. 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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