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What a Difference a Wave Makes

I want to tell you an absolutely true story.

There is a senior living housing complex about a half mile from my office. On the way to work, and often on the way back, I'd see a man with very white hair walking along the street.

Every day, he would wear essentially the same outfit: a short sleeved white shirt and black pants. Other than his hair, he would be somebody that you'd pass on the street without notice.


Almost always at about 7:30 in the morning, this man would walk along the street on the way to work and wave to the oncoming traffic.

I thought it was charming. Without fail, his waving would draw my attention to him, and looking at him every morning would draw at least a pleasant thought, if not a smile or, on occasion, a somewhat half hearted wave back. Thinking that he wouldn't see me wave, I'd usually just stick my hand up in the air and pull it back down.

One morning, the traffic was somewhat slower than I'd noticed. An accident along the way made the driving more deliberate. I looked to the left, and saw the fixture of the morning walking along his steady route, waving at the cars as they passed. White shirt, black pants, beautiful white hair. Hand outstretched, waving at the wrist, a smile on his face.

Then I saw something that I hadn't noticed in all the mornings I'd seen him. With my car crawling along, the drivers in this traffic caught my attention with the most unusual form of collective automotive behavior I'd ever seen:

They were all waving back.


The folks behind their wheels were responding to him, sticking their hands out their windows, lifting their wrist, even if just moving their fingers along the steering wheel.

Now, since then, I'd make a point of watching what the traffic was doing. Every single morning, most of the folks in the traffic in both directions, waved.

This went on for the better part of a couple of years, but I really don't remember. It was a morning observation. Like the sky, the trees, the traffic and the noise, the man on the street waving his arm to hundreds of anonymous friends in their cars, and to me, eased the experience of driving to and from wherever we were going. It was nearly a guarantee to smile every single day.

One day, I noticed him missing. This happened again the next morning. Then the next. After a week, I realized that he hadn't been there from one Monday morning to the next. From that point on, I didn't see him anymore. I'm embarrassed to tell you that I don't know why he stopped showing up, and I never found out.

I wanted to, but I knew or at least expected that my inquiry would be met with bad news. An accident, a stroke, possibly even his death, may have the answer I'd receive, and I selfishly never asked. He has been gone over two years now, I expect I'll never see him on the street again.

Which is why I did what I did a few weeks ago. I'd been thinking about how much I missed seeing him every day, and how much I'd missed having that guaranteed smile on my face on my way to work. So one morning, I took a few hours off. I got up a little early, got dressed and parked about a half mile from my office. I got out of my car, and took a little walk. Did I mention that I happened to be wearing a white shirt?

For about an hour, I walked back and forth along the route to my office. And I waved at everybody.

And I must tell you. For about ten minutes, I thought I was going to be arrested and taken away in one of those nice coats with the very long sleeves. It's one thing for a kindly looking old man to wave to traffic. But a middle-aged bearded Irish guy waving...well, I thought people would think I needed to be locked up.

So for the first few minutes, I didn't make much eye contact with the traffic, if any. I just walked along the road, looking straight ahead, waving to the onlookers.

And when I finally got the courage enough to look up, I saw something I truly didn't expect. The traffic, en masse-almost every car-was waving back to me.

Needless to say, a smile came to my face, a lightness to my step and had I not scheduled a therapy session for later in the morning, I daresay I would've been on the street all morning just walking, smiling, and waving. I was having a blast.

On occasion since, I've had a chance to walk along that piece of road. Every time I do, I always wave to the traffic. Maybe it's in honor to my anonymous old friend, or maybe it's just an effort to keep the tradition alive. But I've found myself on more than one occasion waving and smiling to the approaching traffic and every time, without fail, I've seen most of the drivers in every car smile and wave back.

You see this more often than you may think. Kids trying to get you into a car wash, folks directing you to a garage sale, or those people on the corner with big directional signs. I'll bet that if you were waved to, you waved back at them. Or you may have even waved first. It's out there. And it's such a nice, pleasant gesture.

So here's the deal: be conscious of your waving at people. At the very least, wave to people who let you into their lane. Wave if you've cut somebody off unintentionally. Make it a part of your everyday etiquette when you're behind the wheel. I know that this essay started with introducing you to that lovely man that waved during his walk. I'm not suggesting that anybody take up that pastime, because I know most of you would feel as self-conscious about it as I did. But if you did decide to make waving at people coming down your street part of your everyday habits, there is a precedent.

As another story was told to me, a homeless man stood on the main street of Laguna Beach and waved, every day, to the people in their cars as they came into the city. His name was Eiler Larson. He was such an enduring fixture of the city that a local hotel gave him a room, and a local restaurant gave him meals. This went on for over twenty years.

When he died, the city council voted to erect a statue of Mr. Larson at the place where he stood for all those years, greeting the incoming to the city. That statue remains there today.

So start waving. You'll feel better, and lord knows the people driving in your direction will get a kick out of it. They'll smile and wave back, too. I know. I've tested the theory.

And who knows? Do it long enough, and you might get a statue erected for your efforts. It happened once. It could happen again...

Ed McShane, a psychotherapist, is the author of A Coach for Your Heart: Loving and Practical Points to Improve Your Life on bookshelves soon. McShane's commentaries will be featured monthly on