I was in the parking lot of an LA Starbucks, having just pulled in, but unwilling to leave the car until the song that was playing on the radio had finished, which is a personal ritual of sorts.
It was Kelly Clarkson singing.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I”
In the side mirror, I saw a businessman leaving the coffee shop and wiping his hand with a crinkled Starbucks paper napkin. When he reached his grey sedan directly behind mine, he tossed the napkin on the pavement, and twisted his foot on top of the innocent paper napkin, grinding it as if it were the remains of a tossed cigarette butt, or the grave of a hated nemesis.
This action struck me as violent. Ultra-violent. Especially since the only expression on his face was coldness. This was not just littering. This was not carelessness. This was a statement. This was a hate crime.
I’m not a hero. I run from trouble. But as Kelly Clarkson sang “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I stepped out of my car, not thinking through the consequences. I walked towards the predator. Kelly continued to sing. I heard the refrain in the background; I left my door ajar, the keys inside, the engine running.
As I write this down, moments after the incident, I am aware that I want your approval. Why else would I tell you this uninteresting tale? I want you to say, “Good job, Neil.” But this was not the case at the moment I approached the businessman’s gray sedan. I was acting illogically, quixotic, as if this napkin, this foot movement, all Kelly’s song were pushing me to the wall and asking, “Let’s see what you do, motherfucker?”
The businessman gave me a “I don’t take shit” look groomed from years in the steely boardroom. He had just turned on his ignition, and the idling of both of cars made the parking lot pavement float up as hot dust. I stopped in my tracks, and we faced each other in silence, like gunmen at the OK Corral.
My arm rose slowly, and my index finger extended into a point leading to the dirty Starbacks napkin lying lifelessly on the black gravel. I had spoken. And he understood.
His stare grew intense. If the eyes are the windows of a person’s soul, this businessman lived within a ring of fire. His soul was an old one, one that had been reincarnating time and time again for his numerous sins. He had seen it all — death, plague, the raping and pillaging of entire towns. I was a mere child in comparison, but one with a simple message, “You left your Starbucks napkin on the floor.”
He hated me, despised me like a thousand flaming suns. But he would never win against simplicity. He opened the door, picked up his Starbucks napkin, and drove off into the California sunset.