Temperatures and tempers on steady simmer these days

Normally I mind my own business. If someone stares at me I look away. If they’re in my path I take the long way around. Like playwright Tom Stoppard, I feel I should have the courage of my lack of conviction.

These days it’s becoming more difficult to get on with your own life and not be interfered with by others. More and more there are people ready to challenge how you think or feel about things, and take it upon themselves to disapprove of what you’re doing.

I recently encountered such a person in town on a hot, sultry day. I was running errands with my mother in the car—she’s still hale and hearty at 95, though being Scottish dislikes hot, sultry days, favouring the horizontal rain and cold of her Highland youth. My last stop was the LCBO, a more frequent destination during these anxious times when it’s six o’clock somewhere more often than not.

We were listening to the final moment of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 on the radio—it’s also known as “Winter Dreams” and, along with the A/C, it was providing its own cooling effect—when a motorcyclist pulled up in the parking spot ahead of us. He dismounted and removed his helmet, then turned and glared at us for a moment before heading off across the street.

“What’s his problem?” my mother said.

“Maybe he’s having a bad day. Whatever, I’ll be back in five minutes.”

I left the engine idling so Mum could have the A/C and pretend it was July in Scotland. It’s our running joke.

The LCBO was idling as well at the time, and so I was able to collect my wine and check out in no time. I was putting the carton in the back of the car when the motorcyclist emerged from nowhere and planted himself right beside me. I was still wearing my face mask but as he wasn’t I took a few steps back.

“Not meaning to interfere or anything,” he said, “but the law in Ontario says you can’t idle your engine for more than three minutes. You’re polluting the atmosphere, you know. I’m just saying.”

“Well I’m sorry about that, my friend,” I replied, smiling behind my mask and forgetting I was wearing it, “but my mother’s in the car and she’s 95.”

I omitted to add that she’s Scottish and never acclimatized to our summer climate, but I don’t think it mattered.

“I don’t like to leave her in a hot car.”

“It’s not even that hot,” he retorted. “And you’re polluting the air, asshole!”

So now I’m thinking this little encounter has suddenly escalated. I could just turn the other cheek, which would be appropriate given his insulting remark, or I could convert my 72-year-old body into a weapon and have at him. I did neither.

Instead, I walked around to the front of my car and pointed at his serious motorcycle.

“And this thing you’re riding doesn’t pollute?”

He followed me and raised his voice.

“I don’t leave my engine idling though, do I?”

He then released a barrage of swear words that further befouled the air and caused a couple of passers-by to stop and aim their phones at us. Maybe they thought this would make the six o’clock news.

“Have yourself a nice rest of the day, pal,” I said and got into my vehicle.

He placed himself in front of the car, still spewing out his verbal pollutants and blocking our way, so I backed up and pulled out.

As we passed him Mum smiled and gave him the finger.

And so ended our encounter with Easy Rider.

I related to her what had transpired and she shook her head.

“He said that? Wow. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.” Another of her quaint expressions from a bygone world, where pots and kettles were black and people wound in their necks, as she would say.

I wanted to ask him why he wasn’t wearing a mask while electing to be in my face but that would only have provoked him more. Something I’ve learned about self-appointed correctional officers and feel-good vigilantes is that they mostly travel a one-way street.

Whether they are lecturing you about your carbon footprint or protesting about carriage horses or vandalizing monuments, many remain vacuum-sealed in their righteousness and their slogans. Climate change is of course a prized topic. A scientific fact, yes, but one that gets quickly muddied when it becomes seized upon by those with an axe to grind. It’s more than a little ironic that climate warriors brandish their cell phones whenever they gather, perhaps unaware that billions of these and other electronic miracles of our time contribute as much to environmental pollution, in the air and in landfills, as anything else.

I wanted to explain through my mask to this environmentally aware motorcyclist that I agreed with him—that I recycle at home, keep my house neither too hot in winter nor too cold in summer but “just right,” bike when I can (mine is the pedal kind, fueled only by this old fossil), and I drive hardly at all, but when I arrive at my destination I switch off the engine. I agree that we’re all in this together, but yes it was too darned hot to leave my mother in the car without the A/C.

I discovered that his three-minute idling law was inaccurate. There is no province-wide law. Each municipality sets its own rules.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, where our encounter took place, there is no idling bylaw whatsoever. In Pelham it’s 30 minutes, and only for trucks—and not to curb pollution but to curb noise.

In the Big Smoke it’s one minute, “except when necessary.” When necessary includes forever idling in urban traffic, stopping at red lights, and waiting for your order at the drive-thru (the average waiting time in North America is four minutes between placing your order and picking it up, not including the time spent crawling up to the ordering intercom). Millions of cars—and motorcycles—idle in these “when necessary” situations every single day.

I wanted to explain to him that it was also necessary for a 95-year-old woman to have the relief of a car’s A/C when the temperature outside nearly matched her age—which is another one of those exceptions allowed by idling bylaws where they exist—but he was busy polluting the atmosphere with his expletives and there was no point anymore.

Except the one my mother left him with.