Some friends and I narrowly avoided mayhem in a lonely gas station in one of Chicago's scruffier 'hoods. We had come to the city for an evening of fun, not a trip to the ER. We were all relieved that it stayed that way.


Nearly Getting Our Butts Kicked

This story goes back to the late 1960s when I was a student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb Illinois. I put myself through school working for a couple guys who owned a popular hamburger joint in town; I wound up becoming fairly good friends with the younger of the two brothers, a fellow named Jerry. At some point Jerry and I decided to go on a double date into Chicago, a couple hours away by car. Jerry offered to drive so we made arrangements for our big evening in the big city.

It's been so long I don't remember exactly what we did for our "night on the town," probably dinner and a movie.The memorable part of the evening, however, took place afterwards when we were getting ready to drive back to DeKalb. By this time it was probably at least 11 PM or so but we were young and healthy so staying up late and then driving a couple hours across the cornfields to get back home didn't bother us. But there was another risk to our health waiting for us which we soon discovered when we went to gas Jerry's car for the trip home.

I had lived in the Chicago area for a number of years prior to going to school in DeKalb but this was a part of town that I wasn't at all familiar with. Somehow we managed to pull into a gas station just before a couple cars full of young guys (who nowadays would likely be referred to as "gang bangers") pulled in. We were obviously fairly easy marks for some kind of mischief on the part of these fellows and they quickly took the bait. I had gotten out to find the restroom and as I was walking into the gas station building I heard some commotion. Looking back at the car I saw several of these scruffy fellows surrounding the car and beginning to harass Jerry's date.

It looked like a really unpleasant situation was on the verge of taking place outside because Jerry looked like he was going to confront these guys and probably get stomped. I guess luck was with me on that evening because one of the drivers of one of the cars, who appeared to be one of the leaders of the pack as they say, headed toward the gas station building about the same time I did, probably with the same idea of using the restroom as I had.

"Nice Car!"

I struck up a conversation with this guy. Like many young guys, I had quite an interest in cars although I hadn't had the opportunity to do much about it. But this guy had a really nice looking Pontiac -- I don't remember the details but it looked -- and sounded -- like he had done a lot of work and had really done a great job. So what I did was to completely ignore the rapidly developing / deteriorating situation in the parking lot and just started talking to this guy as if I had known him for years -- I started out by saying something like "Hey, that's a really sharp car you have out there!"

Because of my interest in cars I knew enough of the lingo and I did have somewhat of an understanding of some of the things guys would do to "soup up" a car, so I was able to carry on a reasonably intelligent conversation. I think I asked him if he had put a three-quarter cam* or something like that in the engine, which, as it turned out, he had -- this I believe gave a bit more credibility to my apparent interest.

I don't remember the guy but I do remember his reaction when I acknowledged what a great car he had: he lit up like a Christmas tree. His big smile told me that his car and his passion for it were bright spots in his life -- and he clearly appreciated the recognition. We chatted for a couple minutes and at some point we decided to walk back out to the lot to get back to our cars. By this time he and I had actually "bonded" somewhat because of our mutual interest in automobiles.

"Hey! Leave 'em alone!"

This is the funny part: he and I walked out together, still chatting like a couple of old pals. At some point he looked up and noticed "his" guys on the verge of really giving some serious trouble to Jerry and the two girls who were still in the car. He was the leader, all right. He barked a quick command -- music to my ears, and Jerry's as well -- to his troops: "Hey! Leave them alone!"

They did. They stopped hassling Jerry and got back in their cars. My friend and boss looked at me like I had just walked across the water or perhaps parted the Red Sea. I quickly got back into the car, said goodbye to my newfound friend, and we drove away, completely unharmed.

Fight, Flight, or -- Car Talk?

There is probably all kinds of criticism that could be leveled at my handling of this, especially from the devotees of the movies in which the bad guys get vanquished by the good guys through use of some wonderful martial arts techniques or who knows what. Even if Jerry and I had been highly trained fighters I suspect that the sheer numbers we faced would have been a serious problem for us. But we were so far from being fighters it wasn't even funny. We would have stood absolute zero chance of coming out with any kind of good result if we had tried to take these guys on physically. To make it worse, we were in a relatively isolated area and it didn't seem like any kind of help was to be had anytime soon. Cell phones, with which to possibly call 911, were still 30 years or more in the future.

(UPDATE: This took place in the late 1960s, several years after the November 22, 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have, somewhat belatedly, come to realize that JFK was attempting to deal with the Cold War madness in somewhat the same way that I handled this almost-rumble in that lonely gas station: by seeking out common ground rather than simply throwing a child's tantrum and lashing out in rage -- and the consequences be damned, of course. Unlike JFK, my only "enemy" was the group of toughs in the gas station... which is why I am here to tell my story, unlike the unfortunate JFK).

Was it somewhat manipulative of me to feign all kinds of interest in this guy's car? I suppose it was to some extent. As I recall though it really was a neat car and it's quite possible that if he and I had met under different circumstances I would have shown similar interest in his car. I guess what I was doing was just trying to find some kind of common ground, something to base some kind of a genuine connection with this guy on.

I believe it was many years in the future that I would begin to understand how psychology works and how it is very difficult to mistreat someone else without dehumanizing them first. This was why, for example, the concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany gave the harshest treatment of all to those who would try to befriend them, since they had no choice but to be cruel to these people.

Obviously this could just as easily have gone the other way, with plenty of pain and suffering to be paid for our mistake of stopping in the wrong part of town. But it was an important lesson for me, one that has stuck with me all these years: finding common ground with others at least creates the possibility of decent interaction.

* For any fellow old-time car nuts out there, I also dropped the buzzword "Isky"