preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Dec 30, 2009

Outcome without Consequence

road-closed-sign-xsmallOutcome without consequence—that’s what it seems to come down to with some kids, teenagers especially. Or at least that’s how it was for the crowd I hung out with back in high school—if, that is, you can call four adolescent boys a crowd. Group would probably be more like it. We most certainly did not comprise a clique, neither in number of members nor unity of purpose or qualification. And we possessed no particular athletic prowess, academic acumen, or entrepreneurial bent that might suggest a logical institution of any sort. Indeed, we were a group only inasmuch as we lived near each other and had more or less congruent views towards authority, sharing a singular enjoyment in the flouting thereof.

By “outcome” I mean only that we sought some observable, preferably dramatic, result of our aspirations and actions, most especially if those actions were the culmination of a great deal of planning and preparation, as was typically the case when we were in our mid-teens. We were not, as a rule, overly burdened with academics, nor, aside from inconsequential part-time jobs, tied up with having to work. We had a good deal of time in which to nurture and perfect our machinations. By “without consequence” I mean that the immediate outcome is all we’d concern ourselves with. If it happened that some larger, longer-term (typically negative) effect came about as a downstream result (think butterfly effect), well that was someone else’s problem, seeing as how we were generally long since departed by then anyway, either having become bored or consumed with running from the authorities.

An example will clarify the point I am trying to make here. As preamble, let me concede that the four of us may—may—have been a bit more extreme about this sort of thing than other kids. That’s only a gut feel though, as I have no data, anecdotal or systemic, concerning the activities of other groups against which to compare our own. If anything, we were more aspirational and innovative about the projects we undertook, with the expected trade-off in the consequences department (i.e. more of them, about which we cared less). One of the four of us—let’s agree to call him Bob—was the first to get his driver’s license, which logically put him in a position of power viz the logistical side of our various pursuits. And one night someone proposed the interesting (and quickly to become compelling) notion of closing a heavily-used street, not because it made any particular sense, but simply because we could. Or we believed we could.

As it happened, not only was our driver, Bob, the first with a license, he also had inherited from an older brother a decrepit but more or less functional Chevy El Camino, onto the back cab of which we welded (don’t ask) a large roll bar that served the dual purpose of providing handholds for whichever two unfortunates ended up riding in back (typically determined by employing the inexact and hence fraught adolescent science of “calling it”), as well as offering a modicum of safety on those more-frequent-than-one-might-reasonably-expect occasions in which we managed to roll the car (more than once with occupants in the back, but that’s another story entirely). Besides the roll bar, the El Camino featured a capacious bed, which featured heavily in many of our more logistically demanding undertakings.

So we strategized long into the evening as to how we might actually close a street. Eventually the obvious occurred to us, i.e. employing construction signage in exactly the same manner as bonafide municipal officials would do it. Now one of the many benefits of living in a small town is that you tend to know where everything is, which in this case included currently active construction sites. And so once darkness descended, we set out in the El Camino to the nearest aforementioned construction site, where we absconded with a large orange and black DETOUR – ROAD CLOSED sign and easel, which equipment fit nicely in the back. This color scheme happened as well to be that of our high school, which we thought was a nice touch.

Having decided in advance to exercise a greater-than-typical measure of prudence and quasi-adult responsibility in this endeavor (the reason escapes me at present), we elected not to attempt closure of any artery on which traffic might reasonably be expected to actually strike the sign. We weren’t, after all, trying to kill anyone (least of all ourselves), but merely to inconvenience, and of course provide a suitable quotient of adolescent entertainment. That eliminated, though not without some lively debate, the option of placing the sign in the center lane of a major freeway.

I should digress here briefly and offer some clarity on the concept of risk as it applies to juveniles of the male gender. It comes in two varieties; the first is the direct physical risk associated with, say, carrying a ponderous sign into the center of an active highway, placing it accurately and then retiring to the shoulder. And then there is the largely but not entirely unrelated risk of being apprehended in the placement or (presumed) subsequent removal of said sign. Despite the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to recall at this juncture which of these two was the greater concern to us, but suffice it to say that risk (of either sort) and the quality of outcome were, in our world, absolutely antithetical. Yet in this case we opted for a bit more conservativeness than normal and elected as well not to place the sign in any well-lit areas, lest our miscreance be observed and thus thwarted. These considerations left poorly-lit suburban neighborhoods, of which our town was, as it happened, abundantly supplied.

Having thought through this campaign with greater than our usual level of thoroughness, we felt it would add measurably to our success if we could not only inconvenience innocents, but also create in them a sense of genuine confusion and perhaps even despair. This would have been around the time we were reading “Catcher in the Rye” in school—hence the focus on despair. And what better way to accomplish such a philosophically satisfying goal than to make it impossible (or at least extraordinarily difficult) for someone to get where they were attempting to go after a long hard day at the office, i.e. home, supper and the bliss of domestic reunion. It was simply a question of perusing the map for a thoroughfare whose closure would necessitate as enormous as possible of a detour. Which is how we ended up on Webster Street.

Webster Street was not, strictly speaking, a cul de sac. But in many respects it shared several elements of one. The street was perhaps half a mile long and had something like seventy-five houses distributed along its length. There were very few side streets issuing from Webster, and it was relatively straight, meaning that if you couldn’t get in from the south side, you were in for about a four mile alternative route to the other end, a circumstance whose degree of annoyance was strongly correlated with how close to the south end you happened to live.

The plan was simplicity. We drove to the south end of Webster, hid the El Camino a couple hundred yards from the turn, then, mustering what stealth we could,  lifted the bulky DETOUR – ROAD CLOSED sign and easel out of the back of the car and placed it directly in the center of the beginning of Webster. We then darted out of sight and waited in the dense brush, watching to see what would happen.

As it transpired, this little bit of theater also provided an unexpectedly poignant if scientifically dubious experiment in social behavior. The sign did not, by any means, actually block the road or otherwise prohibit traffic flow. It simply stood in the center of the road, ominously stating (without explanation or apparent recourse) that the road was closed, leaving the motorist to ponder just why that might be the case and to then decide on an appropriate response.

Approaching drivers tended to fall neatly into one of three largely non-overlapping categories, each, one supposes, according to his tolerance for risk (which, as an interesting side observation, appears to diminish more or less linearly with increasing age). Category A comprised the most brazen. These individuals would drive up to the sign, pause momentarily, then dismissively swerve around the sign and continue on their way down Webster, doubtless to supper and an animated conversation with loved ones about what the hell those idiots in the public works department were up to now. Category B drivers were a good deal more thoughtful and cautious when they encountered the unexpected situation. They would stop the car five to ten feet before the sign, pause momentarily, then step outside and walk up to the sign, frequently looking around with some combination of bemusement and trepidation. Only then, having surveyed the situation thoroughly, would they return to their cars and drive, at a creeping pace as if convinced they were doing something wrong, and then disappear slowly down Webster, looking, we imagined, back over their shoulders for any sign of flashing lights. We concluded that these were the individuals who would not bring up the subject over supper, lest their loved ones chastise them for violating some ordinance or other. And then there were the most conservative of the lot, Category C.

A larger percentage of approaching drivers than might reasonably be expected would approach, stop, step out of the car and walk up to the sign, and then, despite the perfectly functional and wide portions of street to either side, return to their cars, look one last uncertain time over their shoulders before doing a one-eighty and proceeding back the way they had come. It should be noted here that this was in the days before cell phones, so none of these unsuspecting unfortunates had the option of calling home to see if a spouse knew what the hell was going on with their street. Each driver was on his/her own. And it should be noted as well that there arose a small but remarkable subset of Category C, i.e. those who drove up to the sign and then simply turned around and drove back the way they had come without so much as stopping or stepping out to assess the situation. And in one altogether unprecedented case, notable (at least to a more learned observer) for its insights into group psychology, two cars arrived in quick succession. Both drivers stopped, one behind the other, emerged from their respective vehicles, and discussed the matter for some three or four minutes before returning to their cars and turning around, returning the way they had come. One can but wonder what such a conversation entailed. Finally it should be stated as well that at no time did it occur to any of the hundred or so drivers who encountered this situation to move the sign to one side and thus eliminate the situation entirely for subsequent motorists. One can only suppose a degree of municipal obsequiance so deeply entrenched as to render such a course unthinkable. Surely if the sign was there, then it ought to by all rights remain there.

What is particularly troubling to assess from this experience and the widely differing responses to the unexpected exogenous stimulus is the state of mind accounting for each unique response. Similar experiences conducted in behavioral psychology labs in which rats are presented with genuine physical impediments result unerringly in the rodents taking every conceivable action to circumvent the barrier so as to reach the expected reward (substitute rat pellets for human supper). Yet the great majority of human subjects in this far less demanding situation, with little or no hesitation turned back. There is something here that merits further research.

In the event, the four of us hidden in the woods and evacuating ourselves with laughter had no such clinical objectives for the exercise. Thus, aside from these anecdotal observations, the data is lost. Our goal was, rather, a largely sociopathic one, viz to cause significant inconvenience without actual physical or pecuniary harm (aside, that is, from the town public works department, whose sign was not, by us at least, returned).

Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared