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On Becoming a Crank

November 29, 2002

I was walking home from work the other day, scrambling and unscrambling the day’s broken eggs. When I reached the dysfunctional three-way intersection about a block from our house, I looked up from my imaginary omelette to check the traffic before crossing. A large white truck was making its way down Longfellow, using that residential street as a business thoroughfare. From the truck’s speed I could tell that the driver had no intention of pausing at the first of the two stop signs he would encounter in the poorly designed intersection.

The street department rebuilt the intersection a few years ago and improved it, but since then I’ve still seen a few dozen people run that first stop sign as I’ve been walking past. Having kids of my own not far away and knowing that other people’s children play nearby, I find these careless drivers alarming. I have even, shall we say, “called out” to a few of them, reminding them in a loud voice that the red octagon whizzing past on the side of the road is actually a stop sign. Most drivers ignore me, but a few have lifted their right hand from the steering wheel to model a famous finger gesture, and a few others have demonstrated their bountiful contempt for civil order by running the second stop sign too.

I had just about gotten over my crank behavior, this habit of yelling at dangerous drivers in the neighborhood ā€“ I can’t remember the last time I “called out” to a driver ā€“ but something about that big white truck caught my eye. Who knows, maybe I had suppressed one too many emotions at work that day, but when I saw the open window, I knew that the passenger and maybe the driver, too, would hear me, and so I called out. I had time to say my usual “Stop sign!” as the truck passed. The driver did halt at the second stop sign, and by then the passenger had his head out the window and was hooting and laughing derisively.

After I’ve yelled at a driver, I use the last block of my walk home to bring my blood pressure back down, and I sometimes think about John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp. The book’s main character, a concerned father named Garp, regularly runs after and scolds dangerous drivers in his neighborhood. But later Garp himself takes a playful, though reckless, lights-out midnight joyride down his own block, and he ends up killing one person and injuring others and all but destroying his own family in a collision right there in his own dark driveway. How many cranks hold other people to higher standards than they manage for themselves, I wonder? Even so, we may sometimes have a civic duty to be a crank.

I thought of that duty, too, during the fall elections. As you would expect, the national Democratic and Republican parties both wanted badly to win our up-for-grabs seat in Congress, and they sent out campaign advisors, advertising experts, and money. In addition, important national political figures from both parties flew into town, gave stump speeches at big public rallies and threw their weight behind their candidates. I heard fifteen seconds of one of those speeches on the evening news. The famous national politician was telling the buoyant partisan crowd that he liked his party’s candidate because the fellow didn’t tailor his views to match the results of focus groups. This was the moment where there needed to be a crank in the crowd, but there wasn’t one. In all the partisan excitement, nobody thought clearly enough to see that a modern major-party candidate surely uses tools like focus groups to decide what to tell voters. Nobody felt an angry surge of adrenaline at having been spoken to with such carelessness or perhaps even contempt. Nobody called out to that very important visitor. Nobody dissented. Nobody said, you’re lying to us and maybe to yourself too! Where are the cranks when we need them?

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired November 29, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.