Chutzpah — an Unsolved Mystery

Riding the ferry and rubbing elbows with a large sampling of commuters, I have the opportunity to see all kinds of people and many varieties of behavior. One characteristic which recently came to my attention is chutzpah, that special aggressive edge of indifference to societal pressures that some people seem to have. It is difficult to define, but it seems to include an habitual “me first” orientation and a sense of individual freedom in the absence of personal accountability. Chutzpah seems to contain a thread of entitlement and a “I’m going to get my share” mentality that (at least in some) overrides the constraints of politeness and fairness.

As you wait to board the ferry at the Bainbridge Island terminal, the passenger ramp is divided into two lanes by a series of cones connected by orange tape. The convention seems to be that the southern lane is for passengers boarding the ferry, while the northern lane is for those exiting the ferry. Nearly everyone follows this tradition, perhaps to avoid being trampled by the disembarking passengers; by the time I get to the terminal, there are usually upwards of 100 people waiting in the right-hand lane like cattle at a slaughterhouse (minus the manure and mooing).

There is a woman, perhaps Samoan or Filipino, who somehow manages to arrive at the terminal at pretty much the same time as me every morning. She habitually wears shorts and white or grey colors, and always carries a small backpack. Instead of waiting in line with the other cattle, er, passengers, she strides down the exit lane and places herself at the front of the line. Somehow she avoids being trampled, and she is among the first to board the ferry. The resentful stares of the other passengers seem to make no impression on her, she appears entirely unabashed and seems to accept the empty exit lane as her appropriate due.

We all would like to do this. How many times have you wanted to ride the shoulder and jump ahead of merging traffic? Many of us suspect that all the rest of the people on the planet were simply put there to provide a backdrop for the center of all creation, which is me (or you, depending on perspective). But we are hampered by our own socialization, the inculcated sense of the rights and prerogatives of others … ultimately we care more about social opinion than we do about squeezing maximum advantage out of life.

The funny thing is, we are all arriving at Seattle at pretty much the same time. Unless she is willing to stand at the front of the ferry for the entire trip, it will be much more difficult for her to be among the first to disembark. While there are certain seats that are preferred, there is a lot of room on the ferry and little difference between those who board first and those who board one hundred and first.


I couldn’t stand it. I had to discover the dire purpose that drove this woman to disregard all social mores and push herself forward in this way. I walked to the front of the boat and found the woman (pictured here) sitting among the forward seats. Sure enough, as we approached Seattle, she positioned herself so as to be among the first of passengers to disembark. But she could be the last to board the ferry and still be among the first to disembark, since people don’t gather outside until a few minutes before we arrive in Seattle. A more casual investigator would have concluded that she was “just one of those ferry wackos”, but I am made of sterner, curiouser, stuff.

I followed her in my best Inspector Clouseau manner to see if she hurried to catch a bus or some other form of transport, but she proceeded at a slow pace and took the foot ramp across Alaskan Way into downtown Seattle. I can only conclude that she is one of those who hates to be behind other people. Maybe one day I’ll dare to ask her why she does it … although I’m not sure I really want to confront someone with that much chutzpah. Until then, it is an unsolved mystery.

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