Yesterday at the Berkeley post office I was waiting in line for stamps. A long line, moving slowly, two working clerks. A clerk was free, and the man in front of me didn’t move up, so I tapped him lightly on the shoulder–something that seemed a perfectly normal thing to do at the time–to alert him that the clerk was free. The man was an older black man and he immediately turned and grabbed me and pushed me hard, yelling “Don’t you put your white hands on me, ” etc. No apology could mollify him; he was clearly at some hair trigger point, and my tap had been the trigger. The supervisor came out and after some time calmed him down somewhat, and we all went on with our morning, slightly shaken.
I realize we are now in a world in which it is not safe to tap someone on the shoulder; the shared assumptions of civility have eroded to the point where we don’t know what will offend, I lesson I’m glad I learned with someone who wasn’t carrying a gun!