I’LL BE walking down the concourse of an airport in Chicago or Atlanta, passing gates where people are waiting to fly to cities all over the country. There might be some small sign of difference here and there — different team hats, accents — but they’re all basically acting the same.
Then I get to the gate for my flight to Boston. People are eating sticky food and reading and staring at their phones, just like at the other gates, but their expressions are a little stonier, and they get up a little earlier before the listed boarding time to mass in front of the door, angling a little more aggressively to ace each other out in the coming rush to get on the plane. There’s a distinctive buzz in the air here. Something’s going on.
It’s the people of Massachusetts getting their crab on in preparation for their return to the crabbiest place in America. I walk into the gate area and catch the feeling and pretty soon I’m getting my crab on, too. If a grandma with six carry-ons tries to squeeze in front of me, acquired instinct tells me to shuffle and turn so that I just happen to block her.
I got my first inkling that the crab was coming over me shortly after I moved here 14 years ago. Some guy came up behind me on a sidewalk in Cambridge and jostled me with his shoulder as he hurried past. This kind of thing happens on crowded city streets as we all go about our business, and I had usually thought nothing of it.
But this particular bump rankled. It felt as if this stranger had gone out of his way to score a point on me as a penalty for impeding his passage. Irritation nagged at me as I walked on. At the corner, I became aware that I was standing next to the guy, who was now radiating impatience at the red light.
When the light turned green, and without ever looking at him or consciously deciding to act, I raised my elbow and drove it into the soft spot between his shoulder and bicep. I strode off with a put-on air of briskness, as if to say, “Well, I’m in a rush, so all I can spare for now is this elbow, but we can take up this matter again when we’re both less pressed for time.’’
This incident was entirely out of character for me. I am, as a rule, a gentle woodland creature, untouchy about my personal space and unlikely to get in confrontations. But the local style of public behavior had crept up on me. Two of its elements, in particular, put me past the tipping point.
First, analytical righteousness. I didn’t want the guy to get away with public rudeness. I couldn’t stomach the thought that not suffering consequences for his nastiness might reinforce in him the conviction that his selfish priorities justified poor treatment of fellow citizens. That my solution featured equal or greater public rudeness on my part did not bother me, since, like everyone else around here, I knew that I was in the right.
Second, I did the cowardly demographic math. In a place with an enormously high proportion of overeducated people — who are, furthermore, responsible for a disproportionate amount of the public rudeness — there was a good chance that the guy who offended me was overeducated. That made it extremely unlikely that he would escalate our encounter until it became dangerous, since overeducated people tend to be effectively deterred by the prospect of getting beat up or arrested. I know this because I’m overeducated.
You see people in a righteous rage doing the cowardly demographic math all the time around town. It’s how they decide, faced with a half-dozen cars blocking the crosswalk, to smack the hood of the Prius driven by a bearded man with flyaway hair who’s cranking “All Things Considered.’’
I resolve frequently to do better, to return to the courteous standards of my Midwestern upbringing. And then some overeducated jerk runs a light or jumps the line, and I find myself getting my Boston crab on all over again.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.