Yesterday I almost beat my barber to death with a blow dryer. I held myself back because there’s no beer in prison, and because I suspected in some vague way that it might be wrong. I’ve known the fellow for years, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about movies, and his kids, and the weather, and semi-automatic pistols while he gave me a severe buzz-cut. I could have paid a chimp and gotten the same haircut, but he’s a good guy who reminds me of the guys I grew up with.

As my buddy trimmed my sideburns yesterday, he decided to talk politics. He further decided to expound about a jagged rainbow of social problems, and he did it with such malice that I felt sick. I might have yelled at him, or even punched him if he wasn’t holding a pair of scissors an inch from my jugular. Please note that I’m not saying which side of the debate he stood upon. I don’t want to talk about the issues. I want to talk about murder.

When he’d finished I said nothing. My dad always told me that no one ever changed somebody else’s mind about politics or religion by talking to them, so save your breath. I hurled a venomous glare at my former friend and hoped my 20 dollar bill gave him paper cuts. I took a distracted left out of the parking lot and cut off a dump truck. Then I drove around without a destination for an hour, wondering how someone I’d liked for so long could turn out to be such a spiteful, terrible person.

I don’t have a priest or minister to turn to when the universe has turned to crap and I don’t know how I’ll ever again relate to my fellow man, not even when I’m miserable because the universe is busy hiding cruelty from me like putrid Easter eggs. In these cases I turn to the wisest man I know, Fat Mike, the owner of Fat Mike’s Rib Shack. Seven blocks later I pulled into Fat Mike’s parking lot, right between a Christian bookstore and a head shop.

I found Mike preparing for the dinner rush, which meant he was sitting in a duct-taped executive chair with his bare feet up on the counter, a paper plate piled with ribs balanced on his round belly, and a red plastic cup of sweet tea in his hand. He waved the tea at me as I walked over, dribbling some barbeque sauce on his purple Hawaiian shirt, and he said, “Hey Bubba. Cheer up—you ain’t making decisions where people might die today, and nobody’s shooting at you. It’s a good day.”

That failed to cheer me up. I explained about my friend the barber and about my existential crisis, while Mike peeled a rib with his teeth. When I was done, he swallowed and said, “That’s a tough one, Bubba. I don’t have a great answer, but here’s what I do. Actually, what I do depends on how good I feel at the time. Now if I feel really bad, say I’m hung over, or doing my taxes, or my wife has locked me out of the house, I just say to hell with the bastards. I go ahead and hate them worse than diarrhea and just accept that there’s people in the world more useless than a monkey fart. Then I go on about my business.”

Mike pitched a denuded rib bone at a gray trash bin and missed. As the bone skidded into the corner, a yellow mongrel dog charged out from under the counter, snatched the bone, and trotted back under the counter out of sight. Mike said, “When I’m feeling better and everything’s all right, my car’s washed and my grass is mowed, I look at it different. I figure this is the world I’ve got and these are the people I’ve got, and I can’t change any of them. I might as well try to make something good out of sharing the planet with the miserable toe-suckers. I don’t let them stomp all over me, but lots of misery in my life has come from trying to change shit I can’t do anything about. Rib?” He held out a dripping beef rib, and I said no thanks.

Shrugging, Mike gnawed off some rib meat and chewed while he said, “When I’m feeling really good, like when I win a $50 scratch-off or find a station with real cheap gas, I figure that I don’t know what some vile turd’s life’s been like or how he got that way. Hell, I’ve got a nephew who’s a tumor of a man, a real cast iron ass-crack, but I remember him being a toddler, playing in my lap, a sweet kid. And I know how he got to be a louse. If I met some horrible asshole and knew him the way I know my nephew, I might look at him a little different—maybe.”

Mike stood and dumped the plate of rib bones in the trash, and I heard a whine from under the counter. Using a paper towel to wipe off each finger, Mike said, “When I feel great—I mean fantastic—like I’m headed to Disney World tomorrow, or my wife bought me a table saw for Christmas, I remind myself that I don’t know what that rancid piece of crap is thinking. For all I know, he may think I’m the nasty jerk, because he’s ignorant of stuff I know. And he knows things I don’t know. Hell, maybe I am the nasty jerk, and I don’t know it. Probably not, but it makes me stop and think before I condemn the guy to shovel shit in hell.”

“So there you go, Bubba. That’s how I handle it, from nasty to not quite as nasty,” Mike said as he strolled around the counter and put a hand on my shoulder. It almost felt fatherly until I realized he was steering me towards the door and out of his hair. As he pushed open the screen door for me he said, “And one last thing I guess. When I’m feeling honest, as opposed to feeling good, I have to admit that no matter what lousy crap that person has done, I’ve probably done just as bad at some point, if not the same dang thing.”

Mike let the door slam behind me, and he said through the rusty screen, “Or maybe I’ve done stuff even worse. How do you think I can stand to put up with you?”

“So, where do you stand on immigration reform and capital gains taxes?”

People are awful, and that’s the way I like them. Whenever some spiteful squid of a person tells me about another fellow’s terrible behavior, I just smile. I smile because despite his abominable acts, that fellow still has people who love him and a place to sleep and better taste in clothes than I will ever have. And that makes me happy, because I have certainly done things as bad or worse than any of the nasty crap he’s done. He and I may not have been punished as we deserve, because the world is not fair. Then again, if we all got what we deserved, it would be a mighty sad world.

I like people so much that I watch them a lot, in what I hope is a non-creepy way. They are more entertaining than any blockbuster movie in the past 50 years. They’re more fun than a Wii, that’s for damn sure. Even when I can kind of start predicting what they’ll do, the way they do it still gushes charm. And people never enthrall me more than when they somehow, mystically, figure out how to act around one another without ever talking about the rules, or really saying anything at all about it.

You may feel that I’m now communicating to you in ancient Babylonian, or in the language of crayfish, because my words make no sense. I will produce an example for you. When you walk into an elevator that has people in it, you know there are certain rules for behaving in there that don’t apply anywhere else. For example, in an elevator you must move as far as possible away from anyone you don’t know. If someone gets off the elevator, you have to readjust like those B-Bs in those stupid games so that everyone can move farther away using the newly freed space. No one ever told you to move the hell away from those people. No one handed you a rule book for riding elevators. But you, and every other elevator-riding human, know how to behave.

I’ve never just ridden the elevator all day to enjoy this phenomenon, because I’m not a sociopathic freak, or at least I’m not one yet. But I have wandered around looking for similar behaviors, and I didn’t have to wander far. If you look carefully, you’ll see that when I check out at the grocery store the whole process is choreographed like Swan Lake. I stand in line, which is nothing special—I do that lots of places. While waiting, I snatch looks at trashy newspapers and Baby Ruth bars and magazine covers showing women with breasts bigger than their heads. But I try to pretend that I’m not actually looking at them—that I’m really passing the time checking out the carpet cleaning machines and the Pepsi display shaped like a football helmet. As if anyone would care.

Then when the person ahead of me is unloading his cart, it’s okay to pay surreptitious attention to what he’s buying. I may think, Ooh, marshmallows, cinnamon gelato, and Cocoa Puffs. I see someone’s getting back in shape. But I make sure not to look like I’m reconnoitering his groceries. And for God’s sake, I would never make any sort of comment about them, even if he were buying Crisco and syringes so he could shoot up lard.

If the guy in line ahead of me asks for three price verifications on a can of Pringles, then writes a two party, out of state check, I’ll get mad. I’ll grumble, and I’ll roll my eyes at the shopper behind me. But I won’t kick the moron in the shin, raise my voice, or even say anything to him. When the moron is at last in the parking lot, then we can all bitch him out and enjoy doing it, but we can’t do it to his face.

When it’s my turn to check out, I must follow a protocol. What do you think would happen if I just walked up and handed the cashier a fist full of money before he scanned my items? What if I nudged the cashier out of the way and tried to scan my items myself? What if I tried to pay with 10,000 pennies, or with a gold watch? What would happen if I asked the cashier for his autograph? These things aren’t as outlandish as you might think. Someone from another culture might not know they’re wrong. But I know all about these things, even though I have never taken a class on grocery checkout etiquette. I just absorbed the social conventions over the hundreds of times I bought bananas and cup cakes.

This all makes grocery shopping sound a lot more exhausting than it really is. But in fact, the conventions smooth out the whole experience so that you don’t have to think as much. You don’t have to wonder what the heck to do when the credit card scanner starts blinking at you like a lemur in the daylight.

It would be nice to have such strong social conventions in other situations, such as buying an over-priced television, farting in a job interview, and trying to get a table in a restaurant that’s far too classy for you. I think we can take care of this. The other awful people and I will get right on creating those social conventions for everybody. It beats breaking out of court houses, starting bar fights, and yelling in church at mean, old religious ladies.