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Fifteen Feet of Vengeance

Yesterday, I was confronted with a moral dilemma. I need your help.

Actually, this thing — well, things — have been with me a long time.

In my closet.

Let me tell you how it started. I assure you, this is all true.

A few years ago, after moving to Mountain View, California, fatigued in my attempt to live by bicycle in suburbs, I began the search for a car. Not too expensive, nice to drive. When I saw the well-preserved Volkswagen GTI offered in an ad by a man in Santa Cruz, I knew it was perfect. Silver is a great color.

My friend Athena was departing for Yellowknife to interview underground in a diamond mine near the Arctic circle. She thought this was a good idea. A flexible attitude toward questionable ventures is her trademark, so she readily agreed to lend me her car. I’d need it the next day for the journey over the mountains.

I was optimistic.

The man’s house was on a quiet, sunny street near the ocean. He called himself Dan. Or maybe Dave. He was tanned, warm, meticulous. Sort of an OCD surfer. Exactly the attributes you’d want in the caretaker of your next vehicle, I told myself.

The car was in perfect shape. It smelled nice. Dave had every manual and receipts for regular dealer service and each deluxe accessory. We negotiated a price. It was fair.

He handed me the keys, title, non-marring synthetic tire chains, custom shifter handle, and a 50-page, extraordinarily multilingual instruction booklet for the Thule roof rack.

But there was also a box.

“You should have this,” he said.

Inside were numerous car radio antennae. All for the same vehicle. On 2004-era hatchback models, the antenna sits at an angle at the rear of the roof, one foot long and black, removable by hand. Quick to unscrew.

He explained that his original antenna had been stolen one night after he bought his beautiful new car. His rage had burned fierce. Like the Norse god Víðarr, exacting vengeance with his bare hands, he cultivated a practice of removing antennae from every Golf model he encountered. This continued for a while. He didn’t say for how long.

But now, it was over. The car was sold. The antennae were mine.

Years have passed. As with so much we cherish, the car’s time with me was cut short abruptly by fate. It was replaced with something newer and shinier, that I care for less. But its memory — and the box — remain.

I’ve avoided this topic for a long time. But now and then, the dusty box peeks from the closet corner, urging me to think about how the original injustice to Dan (or perhaps it’s Dean) was paid forward and multiplied. About how, over months or years, other hapless drivers throughout Monterey Bay left work one hard day, harried and late to pick up their kids from school, only to be engulfed in maddening static from their radio. That frustration now lives with me. Silently. Enclosed in cardboard. Next to my running shoes.

I confess, a few times, I’ve nearly disposed of it the easy way. But throwing it out is uncaring and wasteful. And besides, to the right buyers, they might fetch $40 apiece. Yet should I profit from misfortune to buy overpriced cappuccinos? Could that possibly restore balance, or pay the scattered debt of misplaced revenge?

No doubt, I tell myself, the right answer is to search the streets at night for cars with broken but matching antennae, surreptitiously replacing them with better-functioning ones. Somehow that hasn’t happened.

Ethics teaches us that the spirit of an offense matters as well as its magnitude. The appropriation of small auto parts may be a triviality — but isn’t every small injustice a metaphor for the greater injustices we see around us? Just as one unprovoked wrong grew like a cancer in Dean’s mind to assault innocent, beachgoing NPR listeners in sensible German cars, doesn’t selfishness, revenge, and spite spread like a disease among all of us? Are not even our smallest actions symbols of whether we work to promote kindness in the world? By doing nothing, and keeping these dark, precision-engineered, matte-finish secrets to myself, am I not choosing silence and indifference? Isn’t inaction itself a form of action? Indifference a choice?

Typically, at this point in the ruminations, someone interrupts to ask if I want a fourth whiskey. The train of thought continues, obscured by clouds.

So, dear reader, I have nowhere to turn but to you.

How do I restore equilibrium?

Please hurry. I need the room for more running shoes.

Written by

Scaling systems and teams.

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