I grew up in a calm, upper middle class suburb of Rochester, NY. Although we didn’t discuss it much, the concept of an I.Q. was something with which me and my classmates were all familiar, and to quote Garrison Keillor, where I lived, “all the children were above average.”
We knew that an average I.Q. was 100, but we never publicly discussed the scores any of us received from tests we had taken at school, at home, or at the table of a roadside diner.
All we knew was that 100 was average and that we were all well above that.
I will admit that my upbringing was fairly cloistered. My father was the local pediatrician, my mother worked part time as a nurse, but was mostly home for me and my siblings. We had everything we needed and most of what we wanted.
My high school had one security guard whose greatest challenge was to bust kids who (without permission) left the building for lunch… as they calmly RETURNED to school. My college experience widened my worldview a little, but not in the right direction. Although I was able to hold my own, within my classmates at Lehigh University I was definitely on the left side of that population’s socioeconomic bell curve.
It was not until I got to New York City in early 1992 that I began to see how the full spectrum of Americans live.
I have more stories about this that I can possibly tell, but suffice it to say that I became quickly aware of how blessed I was in pretty much every way.
After a year in Manhattan, then a year in West New York, NJ (not a joke) and a year and a half in Oakland, NJ, I purchased my first house up in the woods of Orange County NY, in a little town called Greenwood Lake.
The house was a super fixer-upper surrounded by an overgrown yard and thick forest. My neighbors were farther away than where I grew up, but I could see their houses through the trees in pretty much every direction.
I moved into my new house in November, so I didn’t really get to know any of my neighbors until the snow melted the following spring. The house next door was small but tidy and I met the owner one warm spring day as we were both surveying what the winter had done to our yards. He didn’t tell me much about himself, but as he pointed to his tall garage, he informed me that he rented the apartment above to a family.
It wasn’t long after that I met… well, let’s just call him Tommy.
Tommy was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and generally seemed like a nice kid, but because he lived in a cramped apartment above my neighbor’s garage with his parents and two sisters, he spent a lot of time outside.
When I would work in the yard, Tommy would walk over and play with my dogs. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he didn’t make it easy. He did however get along very well with the dogs.
That’s how it went for many afternoons and weekends; I would be working in my yard and not far away was Tommy frolicking with my four-legged children.
Again, despite my best efforts, Tommy wasn’t much for conversation and I was convinced that there was something “wrong” with him, but after a couple of months I figured out what it was.
He didn’t have a learning disability or any other specific condition; he simply wasn’t very smart.
Throughout my first quarter century of life I had been wondering where all the below average people were to balance out all the above average people with whom I’d grown up. I’d found at least one of them and he was the kid next door.
I know it may not be the most politically correct thing to say, but simply put, some people are smarter than others. That said, we all have different gifts and some have to do with intelligence, others athletic ability and others still any number of amazing talents. Some are blessed with more gifts than others and that is just the way it is.
Modern society wants to assign a label, a cause and a remedy for anything considered “not normal,” and in many cases they can. However in some cases… well, Chris Rock nailed it when he said:
I don’t get high, but sometimes I wish I did. That way, when I messed up in life I would have an excuse. But right now there’s no rehab for stupidity.
Tommy and I developed a little friendship, such as it was, and since he got along so well with the dogs I began hiring him to look after them whenever I was away.
I learned quickly that Tommy was never going to draw any inferences from my directions and that I needed to be literal, precise and complete. I was not paying him to think, which he wasn’t going to do, no matter what the daily rate.
This went on for a couple years and not too long into it, I began referring to my simple neighbor as “Tommy the dog boy.” Not to his face of course, but when I would arrive home for Christmas and my parents would ask, “who is watching the dogs?” my reply would be, “Tommy the dog boy.”
While all this was going on I got a new job in Manhattan that required me to drive my little Saturn SL1 seven miles down the road where I could catch a bus to the city.
One chilly Thursday morning in October, I came out to start my car and it did not sound good. The battery was clearly on its last legs, but I was able to get the car started. I decided I could wait until Saturday to go get a new battery.
When I got off the bus that evening, the car started just fine having sat in the warm sun all day.
Friday morning was even colder when I came out to drive to the bus, but the time my battery was dead. The “one more day” I had hoped for was not to be, and the car simply would not crank.
Luckily for me my car was a 5-speed so I could push start it.
My driveway was on a slight incline so all I had to do was get the car rolling, hop in, pop the clutch and the car would start.
Unfortunately, the way I had pulled into the driveway I was going to have to do all of this in reverse. Here was the plan:
- If there was enough juice left in the battery (there was) to put the driver’s window down
- Put the key in the ignition and turn it to the “run” position
- Take the car out of gear
- Close the driver’s door
- Start pushing the car at the window frame with one hand while steering through the open window with the other
- Once the car started to roll I would simply open the door, hop in, steer until I was going fast enough, depress the clutch, throw it in reverse, pop the clutch and I’d be off to work
The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 2-3 minutes. Be sure to visualize that I was doing all this in a suit and dress shoes.
Steps 1-5 went off without a hitch, but then I ran afoul of the federal government.
An early 1990s federal law required all manufacturers to install some kind of “passive restraint” in all cars sold in the USA. When my little Saturn first came out in 1991, General Motors opted for automatic seat belts instead of air bags. By the time my 1993 model was made, air bags had become standard but the automatic seat belt was still part of the design.
If you don’t know what an automatic seat belt looks like, watch this (no that’s not me, it’s some random YouTube dude)
So I had everything situated and I was starting to roll the car backwards down the driveway with my left hand on the wheel and my right hand on the rear of the driver’s window frame.
Things were going according to plan when I felt an absolutely massive pain shoot through my right thumb.
Not thinking everything through, and the “mostly dead” battery making everything slower, I failed to notice the automatic seat belt making its way up the window frame towards its final destination… exactly where I had placed my right thumb.
Just as the car began to roll on its own, the seat belt anchor crushed my right thumb with such force that I blacked out for a moment.
When my vision cleared, the car was rolling away from me at such a rate that I could not catch it. It picked up speed and coasted out of my driveway into the road. The geography of my driveway and the pitch of the road caused the car to make a nearly poetic arc out into the road, around four teenagers waiting for their school bus, down into a ditch, back out of the ditch before coming to rest at the side of a large tree in the middle of my neighbor’s front yard.
Just for clarity, when I say “coming to rest” I mean it crashed violently into the tree creasing the backside of my car like a Parker House Roll.
This all happened in about 5 seconds, but watching it all unfold while trying to process the pain in my thumb and “what the hell just happened” details, it all seemed like a dream. After a moment, I shook myself into reality and walked over to see just how badly the car and tree were damaged.
As I walked by the four teenagers, Tommy, in his usual deliberate and emotionless tone looked right at me and said, “that wasn’t very smart.”
I barely heard him as I glared disapprovingly at the destroyed derrière of my vehicle.
Fortunately the tree appeared to be unscathed. I got into the driver’s seat, depressed the clutch and brake, and instinctively just turned the key. And, if you can believe it, the car started.
I sat there for a moment and watched the four teens board their bus. As the whole scenario ran over and over through my mind, I realized just how foolish my actions had been, and how lucky I was that my wayward, silent car didn’t plow into those kids. I broke out in a cold sweat.
I pulled my dented car back into my driveway, and went inside to treat my bloody thumb and change into fresh clothes.
From the very beginning, this blog has been about creative problem solving, but the story you’ve just read should act as a major cautionary tale.
Tommy may have been no match for me if we were going toe-to-toe on Jeopardy, but that morning, my intellect got the better of me. In my attempt to be smart and resourceful I ended up being reckless, destructive and nearly homicidal.
I think about how my life would have changed forever if the car had hit those kids instead of the tree. Tommy’s words echo in my head every time I think I have a “terribly clever” idea.
He might not have been the smartest kid I’ve ever met, but nearly every day he keeps me from doing stupid things.
Draw on whatever you must to avoid situations where anybody (no matter their IQ) has reason to look at you and say, “that wasn’t very smart.”
Copyright © 2015 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.(That Wasn't Very Smart))