Everyday Ethics: The Pizza Mess


Once again, we encounter the gratuitously hostile stranger phenomenon.

I was running a quick groceries errand today, and a young man right in front of me dropped a cardboard carton containing a hot slice of pizza on the floor. Naturally, it landed top down, and the pizza was smeared all over the linoleum. I was right beside him as he froze briefly, looking down at the mess forlornly.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, my Golden Rule reflex kicking in. I hate dropping food, especially ice cream cones and pizza; it brings back many childhood traumas. I genuinely empathized with the guy. And you know what? He completely blew me off. He didn’t look at me, acknowledge my expression of sympathy, or even grunt. He just left the dead pizza slice there, turned on his heels, and walked quickly off to call a staffer.

No, he didn’t have ear buds. He was just another rude SOB who has no interest in contributing to a congenial, mutually supportive society. Can you devise any excuse for this behavior? I don’t think there is an excuse. I think this is evidence that he is a member of the growing and thriving jerk component of American society. Why do so many bystanders refuse to demonstrate care for strangers in peril or stress? Reactions like I got is one of the reasons.

I also resent the fact that the thought that his response, or non-response, was racially motivated invaded my brain like a termite. He was black, you see, and I have spent so much of the last year being told that white people like me are to be presumed enemies of pizza-droppers-of-color that the the flash I was being made the victim of racial bias was a reflex. Damn the race-hustlers! If there’s one thing I know, jerkism is an affliction that knows no color preferences.

My only positive take-away is that I refuse to allow these kinds of depressing interactions discourage me from trying to behave like ethical neighbors, community members, and human beings should behave when they witness a tragedy, no matter how tiny or inconsequential. The least I can do is show that I care, and the least the stranger can do is show some basic decency and say, “Thanks.”

I will not let jerks turn me into Nelson Muntz (above).

29 thoughts on “Everyday Ethics: The Pizza Mess

  1. Because he made no comment in return we can not say that he heard you. Often when some relatively minor calamity befalls me in public I get very focused on what my next course of action should be. Doing so prevents me from reacting to any environmental stimuli initially. That may be all that happened. We cannot assess a negative behavioral trait in a person from only one encounter that had no effective communications.

  2. Funny but I was just getting ready to write about very opposite experiences. While reading daily about all the vitriol between various groups, it occurred to me that such isn’t part of my day-to-day life…never has been. Whether, as an older white gal, I’m popping into a primarily black-owned and frequented wee bbq place; doing interviews about amazing murals in DC, where I traveled solo through some S.E. alleys; just chatting with a very diverse group of folks in local parks as we share a love of nature; or even kibitzing in the grocery lines – I meet folks of all racial and economic backgrounds who just enjoy sharing a few minutes of whatever is making them smile that day. We’re strangers, holding doors for each other, nodding greetings, lending a hand where needed, etc.
    It’s my confirmation that the hatred and strife we read so much about is ginned up by those in the media and political circles – those who will always see the proverbial glass as more than half empty. It’s lazy journalism, pandering politics. and just plain out-of-touch with normal folks.
    The only sour note in the recent past was a perky, young black gal who came knocking on my door seeking support for some Women’s Empowerment Group. I never really learned what it was she wanted from me because she started off saying she wanted to help…in her words, “Chocolate kids whom YOU people don’t think have a good education.” We’d never met and she knew nothing about the decades hubby and I have spent tutoring kids from all backgrounds. She had a chip on her shoulder, made a derogatory comment about a congenital, cosmetic flaw I have, and had no clue that her presentation wasn’t doing herself nor her cause any good.
    I wanted to have a chat with her after I got over the shock of her approach, but she stalked off without partaking in a teachable moment. My words to her would have been along the lines of “You can’t change your skin color and I can’t change my congenital affliction, but all of us have control over our attitudes and character.”
    Yes, jerkism comes in all colors creeds, and backgrounds – but I find it such a wee part of my life that I just shake my head and go on enjoying the majority of great folks out there. If only the media and race-baiting pols would do the same.

    • Wonderful point. Attributing every perceived slight as a negative behavior we lose sight of the many encounters that are positive. Not every perceived slight is real.

    • Agreed. The squeaky wheel get the grease, right? We rarely hear or read about the genuinely nice things we do to and for each other because they aren’t news worthy. Remember that Don Henley song about “Dirty Laundry”?


  3. His thinking may have froze between all white people are consciously or sub-consciously racist monsters with a particular animus towards black people propaganda, not insignificant disappointment in losing his slice, and what to do next. Or he simply did not hear you or only partially.

    A good follow up remark would have been; “I hate when I do that.”

  4. Sometimes you just have to send a jerk to Bruise City by way of Thump Road, or tell his boss he’s a jerk and attempt to get him fired.

    • Alternatively, you might consider that you have no idea at all what is going on with people who don’t respond the way you think they should, what demons might be troubling them that day, and cut them some slack.

      • So do you extend that to everyone who is rude, anti-social, and otherwise makes the world a more ugly and rotten place to live, no matter what the circumstances? That’s not just a rationalization, it’s a presumed rationalization. Nobody has a right to make their problems my problem, and being an ethical adult means not taking out your personal frustrations on others.

        • I’m guessing you are replying to CBP, but it fits my comment as well.
          “Everyone” encompasses way too many people and situations. But, a casual encounter in a convenience store with a stranger who acts unfriendly, no, I would not take out my frustrations on them by punching them out or trying to get them fired. Nor would I consider it a big deal. Like CBP, I rarely encounter unfriendly people (there was that one waiter in Paris in 1981), and if I did frequently, I would have to suspect that I was at least part of the problem.

          • Who advocates punching them out or trying to get them fired? Not me, never, ever. I have confronted such rude people, depending on my mood and whether I thought they might punch Me out.

            If you really think you are not experiencing rude or unfriendly people, then you either live in “Pleasantville” or have a really low standard. Is it rude and unfriendly, for example, for counter staff to refuse to make eye-contact, be sullen and unsmiling, and simply grunt or less during a transaction? Yes, it is.

            • Here’s the comment in this thread that I was replying to: “Sometimes you just have to send a jerk to Bruise City by way of Thump Road, or tell his boss he’s a jerk and attempt to get him fired.” Facetious? Metaphoric? I dunno, but it reflects an attitude I disagree with.
              Can’t say that I live in Pleasantville, but I don’t live Confrontationville either. And, while there are exceptions, the vast majority of service workers I encounter are friendly and cordial. If I do have a “really low standard”, it comes directly from the golden rule. I don’t think that rule applies only if the other person is nice to me.

              • If I inadvertently make someone’s day unpleasant, I want to be informed. If I deliberately do it, I deserve to be called out. The Golden Rule isn’t an excuse to never hold anyone accountable for anti-social actions, no?

                • I’m with you on those first two sentences, but, as to the third, I don’t think I implied that it was okay to never hold anyone accountable. In the case of the dropped pizza, I would not have called the guy out or pursued it at all; I would have assumed that he either was having a bad day already, or that he was an asshole, or even, and this one is a stretch, a big stretch, that he was demonstrating for the white guy how a microaggression works.
                  To go back to your question, “Can you devise any excuse for this behavior?” No, I can’t, if an excuse means to excuse the behavior. Having a bad day already might be a reason for his reaction, but does not excuse it. Being an asshole doesn’t excuse asshole behavior. And that stretch – well, that only works as an excuse if he had come back to you fairly quickly and explained the lesson he was trying to teach.

              • Metaphoric, maybe. Facetious, no. I work in an adversarial profession as it is, and sometimes things get ugly. That said, actual physical violence within my profession is rare, and the consequences too close to life-altering to fool around with. Neither the judges nor the ethics committees nor most law firms are inclined to tolerate lawyers, who should know better, physically fighting, leave alone inflicting bodily harm on one another. That said, sometimes you have to stand up to a bully, and one way to do that is to let his boss, if he has one, know what he’s doing. I think the partners of a law firm deserve to know if one of their associates is acting like an idiot and decide if they want to retain him on their payroll. Outside the profession, all bets are off. Life is too short to put up with assholes, and maybe people would be assholes less if they knew they might end up in the hospital (or the morgue) if they pissed the wrong stranger off.

        • That’s called toxic kindness, a cousin of toxic positivity. And the flip side of this, being nasty because things are already going bad for you, sounds like NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz, “You know, I’m already having a bad day, and if I don’t start seeing some cooperation REAL soon, my bad day is going to become your VERY bad day.”

        • *Nobody has a right to make their problems my problem,* and being an ethical adult means not taking out your personal frustrations on others.

          Some people are rude because they are jerks but I perceive rudeness as symptomatic of being unhappy for the vast majority and that is a miserable way to live. Being unhappy does not excuse being aloof, rude, or unfriendly, but it is an explanation that requires some consideration in how to respond. While each case may be somewhat unique, the one primary goal is to disallow one’s own peace of mind and joy to be compromised by someone else’s attitude.

          Three words that have proven to be constructive when encountering an unfriendly checker or clerk; “are you okay?”

  5. I empathize with this fellow and here’s why: I, too, have suffered the degradation of dropping a pizza pie and watching it land face-first on the floor, whereupon I have been reduced to a slobbering, blubbering, hollow shell of a human being. In those instances I run for cover to hide in shame. Weeping uncontrollably over a fallen pizza us beyond humiliating and its clearly unethical, if not immoral.


  6. In 2017 I was at Andrews AFB shooting pictures of the biannual air show. A lot of us aviation photographers make use of cameras with very long, and in a lot of cases very wide lenses. They aren’t the easiest things to control. However, it’s understood you do your best not to poke someone else with your lens. Some jerk to my right swatted me across the ear with his lens not once but twice. The first time I just gave him a dirty look. The second time I issued him a warning. He told me if I didn’t like it I should move. I told him I was there first, I wasn’t moving anything, and in a minute I was going to tell him to hand the camera off to his wife, because I was going to fight him then and there. At that point the SFs (the Air Force equivalent of the military police) intervened and told us both to knock it off, and that he needed to move. After the flying ended I weighed what to do – walk around the static display or find this guy and kick his ass for disrespecting me. Decided to do the former, since by then my wiser self was in control and grasped that the consequences wouldn’t be worth it, but it took me a minute. What kind of jerk violates someone’s personal space twice, then cops an attitude about it?

  7. There may be an age and generational aspect to this encounter as well. Note the annoying as hell GEICO commercial campaign with that asshole life coach who makes his living preventing thirty and forty-somethings from becoming their parents. I suspect the guy was stunned into silence upon realizing an old fart had the audacity to even speak to him. It was an okay Boomer moment. There’s even one of those GEICO commercials mocking a young guy for striking up a casual conversation with a tradesman or guiding someone who’s backing up a car. According to this current ethic, your being civil to and chatting up the guy was simply bad form and unhip and therefore a basis for ridicule. He probably patted himself on the back for not saying something really nasty to you.

      • Couldn’t agree more. I wear a hat because I’m bald. Black guys dig hats. I always make eye contact with them when in public and we nod and smile at each other. I find black people make eye contact in public. That little communion is right there for the taking.

  8. What really happened according to the MSM.
    White “Ethics Alarms” blogger Jack Marshall slapped a pizza slice from an innocent young Arican-American’s hand today. The young man kept his composure and ignored Mr. Marshall’s harassment to get help from the staff. When asked for comment Mr. Marshall claimed “the piece just fell” with a typical privileged arrogance. A Gofundme page has been set up to support the young African-American man that was the victim of this heinous pizza attack. Jack Marshall is also bald.

  9. https://www.theverge.com/2021/7/21/22587249/jeff-bezos-space-pollution-industry-sacrifice-zone-amazon-environmental-justice

    I wanted to share…. .this. I say ‘this’ because it’s … an article… I’ll say that for it. I dont know if this qualifies for ethics dunce of that day since it’s not so much unethical as it is… drawing absurdly non sequitur historical comparisons? Does that count? It might. Needless to say…. that this is really how someone thinks and a legitimate technology news website deems it worthy to publish… Wow.

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