I was meeting my friend Marian at a very popular Mexican restaurant for lunch last week. Unfortunately, we’d come up with the dimwitted plan to meet at noon — along with everybody else in town.
The restaurant’s parking lot was bulging and the nearby streets overflowing. Out of sloth and impatience — two of my less attractive sins — I did something I’ve never done before. I parked in the 15-minute food-to-go slot.
I was a jerk, a loser and a cheat. I assured myself that once somebody else vacated a nearby parking place, I’d sneak outside and move my car. I kept glancing nervously toward the parking lot, but nobody’s car moved. I felt like scum, but I didn’t move my car. I just ordered a burrito.
“I just did something awful,” I told Marian when she arrived, explaining the extent of my crime. “Do you think I’m as bad as Lance Armstrong?”
Marian — who had parked legally and ethically herself — said no. “Did you bully other people?” she asked. “Sue them? Threaten them? Ruin them?
“Of course, you’re not as bad as Lance Armstrong. Don’t be silly.”
Conversations like this about Armstrong, his sins, his cheating, his boorishness, his lies have been going on everywhere — but particularly here in Austin, his home town. Live Strong, the cancer foundation he started, is only a mile from downtown.
Over the past few years, if you were in an Austin bar, you couldn’t spill a drink without disturbing some guy with a yellow Live Strong wristband. That yellow band — symbol of grit, determination, focus, the will to win against cancer and other pumped-up people on bicycles.
Many of the men I knew just loved those wristbands, and Austin turned yellow with them, Properly helmeted, spandexed, sleek and sunglassed, local bicyclists took on a swagger they’d never had pre-Lance. He was our local hero since — don’t forget — it wasn’t just about the bike or Lance himself. It was about cancer.
It was our feel-good story for this shabby, cynical age. As a cancer survivor, I even took a tiny part in a LiveStrong campaign. I looked so fierce and airbrushed in the photos, I was hardly recognizable.
It was good, it was great, it was our local story, it was so inspiring. Except. Except — every one of us who lives here had heard the stories. Lance was also ruthless, mean, a bully, a jerk. We all heard those stories again and again, too consistent not to bear shreds of the truth.
The years passed, the rumors and reports of everybody’s doping and Armstrong’s vicious intimidation of his accusers drew more notice. You had to be deaf or a true believer to go on thinking this guy was clean. Our feel-good story for our shabby, cynical age became more pathetic and tattered than the age itself.
You know the rest. Lance Armstrong has finally confessed, kind of, and apologized a little. And the rest of us, Austinites, non-Austinites, fans, skeptics, cancer survivors, former wristband wearers, bicyclists and pedestrians, have gotten to talk about him, shake our heads, moralize, say we knew it was too good to be true, anyway, and besides everybody always knew he was a dick.
I find myself doing it, too, fascinated by the sheer spectacle of it, trying — like everyone else — to plumb the depths of a storied person’s mind and heart. Maybe there’s something to be learned from this sad story, but there’s also an ugly pleasure in what the Germans call Schadenfreude. Like straight liquor, a little goes a long way; it feels good at first, but it can make you act like a self-satisfied fool.
Like someone else’s life is really your business. Like someone else’s downfall means you’re a pretty good person by comparison. I backed my car out of the to-go slot, drove away and swore to myself I wouldn’t do that again. If I wasn’t going to be an asshole in my own life, then maybe, oh, maybe, I should stop acting like one.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
See a not terribly related post on How Not to Talk to Women