As the school bus drove away with my daughter this morning, both the driver and the monitor waved to me. And I waved back. I live in a part of the world where people wave.
If three or more cars meet at a four-way stop, chances are pretty good at least a couple of the drivers will wave to one another. When I drive through a neighborhood, even if it’s not my own, I wave to anyone I see along the street. I wave at people I see passing by the house when I’m outside; if they’re not in a car, we usually exchange a word or two as well.
We’re not talking big, showy gestures here, a great flailing of arms or flapping of fingers. More often than not it’s a simple raise of the hand, palm facing out, with a slight movement of the head and maybe a smile
I hadn’t really given this much thought until a couple years after we moved here. I was running an errand on the other side of town with my sister, who was visiting from out of state. As we came to a stop sign, I waved and nodded to a man walking his dog. He waved and nodded back, and we drove on.
“Do you know him?” my sister asked, sounding surprised.
“No,” I replied.
“Then why did you wave to each other?”
I shrugged, a little puzzled myself. “It’s just what people do here,” I finally offered, rather lamely.
Some of the reason for these mysterious exchanges, often between strangers, dawned on me later that summer. We live on a corner near a small neighborhood park. I was working in the yard near the street early one evening when I heard a vehicle approach. Looking up, I saw a sleek black sports car stop at the intersection. I raised my hand in greeting and stood as the car turned the corner and passed me, but the driver didn’t acknowledge me. Suddenly wary, I made a note to report the encounter to the neighborhood watch when I saw the car turn toward the entrance to the park.
For all I know, the young man driving the car wasn’t a drug dealer or scofflaw and had a perfectly legitimate reason to go to the park that day. But his failure to make eye contact or in some way recognize me rendered him instantly suspicious in my mind.
At least one of my college professors described greetings and other social gestures as the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. A willingness to see others and be seen by them indicates you have nothing to hide; an open hand, extended or raised, shows that it holds no weapon.
It amazes me how warmly I feel toward another driver who lifts a hand to notice my yielding the right of way, even when it was most clearly his to begin with. I marvel at the sense of community such tiny gestures generate, the feeling of belonging that arises from acknowledging another person and being in turn acknowledged. It’s a miraculous kind of shorthand, a way of saying, “Here I am, there you are: everything is just as it should be,” with a single, concise movement.
I leave you to ponder this, dear reader, with brief flash of my hand and slight nod of my head.