My mother doesn't like to talk to me on the phone when I'm driving, so she made her point that the world is in worse shape than she'd ever seen it in her 80-plus years, then hung up. I diluted her grim words with rock radio and was thoroughly enjoying an Eagles' song I'd hated in 1975 when a man in a Dodge Caravan honked and motioned for me to roll down my window.
Actually, for the sake of accuracy, I didn't notice he drove a Caravan until later, when I was homicidally tailing him up and down side streets.
Anyway, my window down, the 60(ish)-year-old man said, "So, you're listening to music, huh?"
My eyelids crinkled: Excuse me?
Then he said: "You should listen to talk radio so you can hear how Obama is ruining the country."
The light turned green. My lane was slow enough for me to pull my jangled faculties together and remember the Obama sticker on my rear bumper. There are roughly 9 trillion Obama stickers in L.A., so right off I knew I wasn't dealing with a novice maniac. Keeping my eye on him several cars ahead, I tried ticking off the symptoms of a sick society that might motivate his uranium-enriched behavior.
My knee-jerk target was talk radio itself, an epicenter of American vulgarity that metastasizes news, sports, psychology, economics, civility and any topic in its airspace. But that, I decided, was too easy an assessment. Lots of people listen to talk radio without acting out what they hear. The Eagles song started getting on my nerves like it used to, which was nice because it reminded me of 1975, when Saigon fell, Nixon was gone and life on Earth had a future. Somehow, out of that, my thoughts turned to rage. Not my rage, just rage in general. The kind that leads to spasms of unprovoked stupidity.
Maybe people feel smaller than ever. Overpopulation, celebrity worship, dwindling access to the American dream — it all makes people angry and tiny. Nothing buoys them, not even a pristine day sniffing distance from the Pacific. You would think that sad assessment would have tripped the lobe of my brain that serves up empathy, but no. Not at all.
The Caravan turned right onto a residential street. I was on my way to my agent's office, so I had weeks to kill. I turned and followed the guy. Unlike an unmarked car running surveillance on a suspect, I tailed the driver of the Caravan as indiscreetly as possible, hoping he'd see me, realize who I was, get nervous, then scared, then terrified, then have a massive coronary and slam into a 300-year-old sycamore.
It's just the way I was feeling at the time.
There are stop signs everywhere in the flats of Beverly Hills. I stopped behind the Caravan at each one, leaving enough distance so I could be seen balefully staring at its rearview mirror. Apparently this strategy was effective, as the Caravan started making rolling stops, then no stops at all.
Maybe the root evil is the Internet. All that democratization leads people to believe that their opinions not only count but must be broadcast at every opportunity. And maybe I was guilty of that very thing by simply having an Obama sticker on my car. And by extension, maybe the worst part of being a liberal is that, ideally, you're supposed to tolerate the opinions of others. Annoying but true.
That thought put an end to my tail-the-perp ride. I put on a Rolling Stones CD. "Let It Bleed." I blared it extra loud so the driver of the white Caravan could hear that I was still listening to music.
Lowering yourself to someone else's level is one of the easier side trips you can take in life.
Peter Mehlman, a former writer on "Seinfeld," is a screenwriter and essayist.