Standing Up to Litter Bugs, Bullies, Law Breakers

A lot of my good friends are worried about me. They're afraid that I'm going to get killed or maimed because I'm incapable of stopping a dangerous behavior, albeit one that benefits society and makes the world a better place. But before I get into the details, I have to explain the history of my malady, which I inherited from my father.

Our story begins at the drive-in theater in Harrisonburg, Va., around 1970. We were out at the movies as a family—me, my parents, and little brother—when a carload of drunkards rolled up next to us and started getting rowdy, cursing and yelling and acting like fools. It was sort of scary (I was 10 years old), and after a few minutes my father had had enough. He reached under the front seat and took out his nightstick—the one he used to hit poachers over the head in his job as a game warden—and walked over to the car. I remember looking through the glass and worrying those big rough characters would beat him up, or worse. He tapped on the driver's window with the stick, and when the men looked up my dad said firmly: "I've got two kids in the car next to you, and we're not going to sit here and listen to this. You're moving. Now." (Click here to follow Steve Tuttle).

Maybe it was a more innocent time and place, or maybe it was the way he delivered his order without giving them a choice. It could have been the nightstick. But those drunk, cussing good ol' boys suddenly became apologetic and immediately drove off and away from my family. It wasn't long before people walked up to our car and thanked my father, and some said they wished they'd had the courage to ask the men to move.

I've never forgotten the way my dad took action that night. If we're lucky, we all have two or three seminal moments in our childhoods when a parent does something that stands out that makes us feel not only proud, but safe and protected. The rest of the time they pretty much embarrass us. But that summer evening I could go safely back to my Jujubes and RC Cola and watch the rest of the double feature, which is lost to memory. Whatever it was, it couldn't have lived up to what I'd just seen out the back-seat window: my dad starring in a live version of Walking Tall.

The lesson I learned that night boils down to this: you should be willing to risk your life if people are talking too loud at the movies. Or cursing in front of your kids. Or talking in public on cell phones. Or running red lights. Or littering. Little did my dad know he was planting the seeds of a future superhero, although one more like Underdog than my father's Superman. I might not confront a car full of roughneck goons, but I can still swing into action at the drop of a napkin on the street. And you'd better run for cover if an F-bomb comes flying out of a slack-jawed teenager's mouth in front of my kids. (As long as he's smaller than me.)

Just the other day in Alexandria, Va., where I live, two guys were walking toward me eating when one wiped his face with a napkin and then just threw it on the ground as I was passing by. In broad daylight! I took a wide step to the left and blocked his path, folding my arms in front of my chest and said: "Here's what's going to happen. You're going to pick up that trash, and you're going to put it in that trashcan, and you're going to do it now." Yes, I actually said, "Here's what's going to happen." Dad would have been so proud. So what if they were only about 5 foot 4 and I'm 6 foot 3?

There's always a moment of tension that comes right after I bark one of these forceful orders, when I wonder if the guy is going to do as I say or stand up on a step stool and try to break my jaw. But they almost always back down. It's as though they're suddenly confronted with all of the lessons they learned as children about manners and the Golden Rule and not acting like a jackass in public. But I think my secret so far is that I've seemed just crazy enough to deter disobedience or snappy comebacks. Sort of how I look in the photo at the top of this column. In this case, the guy teared up and started apologizing. His friend looked like he was about to pee his pants. The litterer picked up the paper and threw it away, and I promptly said, "Thank you, and good day to you, sir." (Article continued below...)

Well, I wish I'd said that, anyway. But one of the flaws in my superhero persona is that I don't let go of the bone even if the perpetrator follows my insane orders. So I said something like, "That's right! You are going to pick it up! Uh-huh! This is MY town!" or something equally inane and embarrassing. I basically channeled Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder when they were walking into prison for the first time in Stir Crazy. Only those guys were going for laughs.

Luckily, my long-suffering daughter and son weren't around for this one. Unlike my idealized view of my dad's bravery, they find my cut-rate hero antics incredibly embarrassing. One pretty fall day we were walking down the sidewalk when a grown man sitting with a group at an outside cafe loudly said, and I quote: "The f---ing muthaf---ing Zorn f---ing Dan Snyder f---ing Redskins!" I walked over to his table and said in an even more booming voice. "You know what, I'm out here walking with my kids, and I am not going to listen to you using that kind of language. It's totally not OK to talk like that in public." He immediately got apologetic and said I was right. Meanwhile, his friends all looked at me like I had just escaped from St. Elizabeth's and were wondering if they should dial 911 on their cell phones. I was so proud that I had given my kids a moment to remember like I had with my dad. But when I turned to bask in their adulation, they were nowhere to be found. They had run away in shame.

Another time we were all at Starbucks when an attention-craving teen wannabe thug—yeah, a thug at Starbucks, exactly my point—loudly told a girl he was with that she was a "dumb bitch." I walked up to him and said, "You're going to apologize to her right now, and I'm going to stand here until you do." He didn't look like he was going to pee his pants. I think he really did. After he apologized. Instead of thanking me, my daughter recoiled in horror and begged me to never do that again. To her I wasn't starring in Walking Tall but more like Dumb and Dumber.

Like Superman, who can see through anything but lead, or Batman, who has a significant other named Robin, I have a trademark: it's slapping cars that run red lights or stop signs when I'm out running, which is six days a week. I even know the intersections in D.C. where it's going to happen and I'm ready with my slappin' hand. (I'm talking to you, 18th Street and Constitution.) My dream is to perfect a flopsy where I slap the car and then spill across the hood and make the driver think he just hit me, like Ricky Jay did in Heist. I need to work on that one, though. One day I slapped the wrong guy's car. He screeched to a stop and jumped out and yelled: "I am going to pop a cap in your ass, #%&*+!" The rest of it we can't print here, but half of the other word was "mother." Instead of running away immediately like a sane person, I believe I said something badass like "Oh, yeah, I'd like to see you try!" That caused him to quickly lean back into his car and me to run away really, really fast. (I may be belligerent, but I'm not suicidal.) That's the bad news. The good news: I found out I can run a five-minute mile in my late 40s.

So the next time you see someone litter or curse, I hope you'll do what I'd do: check if the guy's bigger than you, then step up, cross your arms, and say, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Only don't say "hell," because that's kind of defeating the point. I'd really like your help, but in the end I don't care if I'm the only one. I'm going to keep fighting the good fight until I'm six feet under. Which might not be long. My good friend told me the other day that she would say the eulogy at my funeral, but I wouldn't like it. She said it'll go something like this: "Grace and Joseph, your dad died doing something really stupid." If only I could be alive to hear such a eulogy. I'm getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.