porcelainandporcupines

Archive for February 2012

One sunny Friday in 1998, I chose not to got work. Not because of any illness, despair, or other demotivational factor, but because my former friend Naopi was in town visiting for the weekend. And, though the trip had been planned well enough in advance that I could easily have scheduled the day off, I chose, for reasons that I don’t quite recall but probably have something to do with my tendency to hoard vacation time, to call out sick that Friday morning.

Had my fake “I’m sick, cough-cough” voice been strong enough actually to be recorded by the company’s voicemail system, that day would have been relatively unchanged. As it was – or wasn’t, in this case – my co-workers grew concerned that I, normally so responsible and reliable, was not present and could not be accounted for, a concern they expressed by repeatedly calling me throughout the day.

In 1998, you must recall, cell phones were uncommon; my house phone – which was shared with my 4 roommates – did not have Caller ID. As Naopi and I sat in the house, deciding what to do with the day (we ended up going to the  Carberry’s on Prospect Street,) I was perfectly at ease with the phone constantly ringing in the background. After all, from my perspective, there was no reason anyone would be calling me : work knew I was “sick,” and Naopi had arrived safely, so my bases, such as they were, were covered. Naopi, on the other hand, was not comfortable at that point just letting a phone ring and ring, and so it was that we had the following conversation:

Naopi: Don’t you think you should answer that?

Me: No. Why would I?

Naopi: What if it’s an emergency?

Me: Why would anyone call me in an emergency?

The question stumped Naopi; one of my roommates, sitting in the adjacent living room and conspicuously not eavesdropping on our conversation, covered his mouth in an attempt not laugh. Which is, of course, why I remember this incident at all; I always try to remember what works with an audience, in the hopes of recapturing that magic in other settings. But the question had been asked in earnest : at that moment, I honestly could not think of any emergency situation that would benefit in the slightest from my presence.

Many things have changed since that Friday afternoon 14 years ago : cell phones have succeeded house phones in the battle of telephonic supremacy; Caller ID is no longer optional; Carberrys has been replaced by Lyndell’s bakery; and, most importantly, you can now call out sick to work via email, sparing you the effort of trying to sound sick early in the morning.

I, of course, have also changed in that time. I have grown older, and, in recent years, have become very vocal about how comfortable I am with my advancing years. While I would like to be able to claim this is due to some kind of yogic tranquility or a sense of accomplishment, the truth is, to me, age is the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. I don’t have my whole life ahead of me anymore; barring unexpected accident or illness, my life is probably about half over. Which means, with only half of my life left, I don’t have a lot of time to waste : if you’re boring, a bad kisser, an adult wearing a hat that looks like an animal, growing ironic facial hair, doing anything that lacks sincerity, or wearing any garment that could be referred to as a cloak, I no longer have the time to put up with your nonsense. For me, age has come with a grand sense of entitlement, rather than wisdom; as a result, unless the resolution involves sarcasm or fabulous shoes, I am no more equipped to handle an emergency than I was 14 years ago. Which makes it all the more incomprehensible not just that, at work, people look to me to handle emergency situations, but I am actually supposed to know how to handle them.

It may seem like a library emergency would be somewhat low stakes, particularly since the day-to-day irritations are so; a consistently late coworker, a super-user who doesn’t know how to use the scanner, an astoundingly rude professor  who never says even says “Hello,” much less “Thank you,” : these are unpleasant realities of working, but they would hardly qualify as emergencies. Broken glass falling from the ceiling onto the heads of my student workers, on the other hand? That feels like an urgent situation.

To understand how the glass fell inside the library, you must be familiar with certain architectural features of the library that I can not provide much detail about here for reasons I’ll explain later, but I can say this: there are windows that open into the library from inside another building. So the falling glass, as we discovered, was not from the wreckage of anything library-related, but because workers on the 3rd floor of that other building knocked a piece of art against one of the library-facing windows, thus causing that window to shatter.

As I said, this knowledge came later. At the time, I knew this : an extremely loud noise came from the upper levels of the library just as Nia, a student worker who was just finishing her very first training shift in the library, returned to the desk area. I looked over to her in time to see tiny shards of glass falling all around her, while she hunched up her shoulders as one does in defense against inclement weather when one does not have an umbrella. Although this offers no actual defense whatsoever, against either shards of glass or snowflakes or little drops of rain, Nia remained fortunately unharmed, while the glass continued to fall as I stood staring.

More quickly than it seemed, the tinkling sound of glass hitting the floor came to an end, and as there was no follow-up loud noise, I, along with my colleague Devin rushed over to where Nia still stood. Instinctively, the three of us turned our eyes ceiling-ward in an effort to discover the source of whatever had just happened. A long moment passed as we stood staring, until suddenly I realized the following things:

  1. Glass had just fallen from the sky;
  2. Instead of gawping like turkeys amazed by the rain,  perhaps we should move our delicate faces and eyes to a protected area within the library;
  3. Nia might possibly be injured;
  4. Someone needed to do something about this;
  5. Despite Devin’s presence, this was my shift, in my library, with my student workers; ergo :
  6. I was the someone who needed to do something.
  7. Uh-oh.

Really, though : me? This situation was never covered in library school; I was not prepared.

However, wondering how did I get here? did not help in any way to resolve points #1, 3 and 4. 3 seemed like the most pressing point, and could, in its resolution, address point #2, so I suggested we all move back over to the relative safety of the circulation desk; I may not have physically dragged Nia over that way, but I do know that, noticing that she was trembling even though she said she was unharmed, I did force her into a chair with a commanding “SIT”. Partially this was so that she would not have to waste any energy standing, but it was mostly so that I could know that she was safe from the threat of further injury, which allowed me to turn my attention elsewhere.

What was most interesting about the rest of the evening (to me, anyway) was not the resolution of the situation, which actually turned out to be surprisingly simple : the fellow who broke the window appeared in the library and explained what happened, which I then reported to facilities (although it did take 2 calls to impress upon them the immediacy with which the repairs & cleanup needed to be undertaken); Devin excused Nia, about whom I had almost entirely forgotten, for the remainder of her shift; I warned the other student workers about the glass in the area behind the desk, and then swept up the little bit of glass that was in a public part of the library.

What was interesting was that, despite the simple solution, I was completely terrified the entire time. As I went about the minor tasks of notifying facilities and sweeping up glass, I had the same quasi-nauseated feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I got in the Market Basket when Jordan Baker rammed me with her Rascal. The startlingly uncomfortable awareness of my lower abdomen was in this case accompanied by a strange sensation in my ears, not quite a ringing, but an effect that made it sound as though everything were very far away. I believe I attempted to bridge that distance by speaking more loudly than necessary; I know for certain that I spoke far more slowly than normal, as I was expending a great deal of effort to come up with each word, then pronounce it without my voice cracking.

And all of this terror was due not to any physical threat to my well-being, but to being in charge, and of what had apparently been a relatively minor happening; although I sent out an email to the rest of the full-time library staff to alert them to the situation, not one person gave any indication that anyone beside me considered it a big deal. It’s possible that I attempted to downplay the gravity of what happened in the email, but I know for sure that I mentioned the part about broken glass falling all around the circulation desk and still : zip.

You might think that the moral of this story should be that, since I single-handedly capably, uh, handled what turned out to be a relatively minor occurrence in the life cycle of the library, I’d be more confident about whatever challenges might come my way. Such thoughts would be incorrect. Because the next emergency that arises in the library, be it an actual emergency or one that is perceived as such only by me, is not going to be glass falling from the ceiling. That very specific situation is something that I do know how to defuse, which means that, should it ever arise again, it won’t be an emergency. The next emergency will be something else, something new, and what will make it an emergency is that decisive action will be required on my part, and I will have no idea what that action should be.

One interesting thing I learned in college that I still remember is that when asking for advice, a person will overall get the response they were looking for. As one of the readings from the Sociology class I took in the Spring semester of my Freshman year went on to explain, before asking for advice, a person will run through a mental inventory of the people that they know; in choosing who among these people they will ask, they choose the person or persons who will give them the answer they most want to hear.

While the scope of that article was strictly on advice (I think – that was kind of a long time ago; if memories aged like people, that particular interesting fact would be in college itself right now, just beginning the Spring semester of its Junior year, and might even be at a frat party celebrating the new semester, drinking out of a red Solo cup and wondering why the floor is sticky), it can easily be extrapolated that, when in search of information of any sort, people will endeavor to find something that supports their own already established decisions or preferences.

This is not necessarily to say that people are close-minded. Rather, the belief in one’s own correctness and the urge to reinforce that correctness is, itself, self-reinforcing : it’s unlikely that a person would – or even could – believe things that they believe to be incorrect. One of the great challenges of life is to keep oneself open to other possibilities and different beliefs. Another great challenge is to remain respectful of others whose beliefs conflict with ones own. And perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to remain polite in the face of someone adamantly sticking to a belief that you know is incontestably wrong. This last challenge is one I faced recently, on a day very much like today, in so unlikely a place as the Market Basket.

The setting is unusual due not to any especial grace of the clientele; for example, on my first visit to the Basket this year, an older woman crashed her Rascal right into my shopping cart, then drove off muttering about how I must not have seen her and offering rather a depressing glimpse into the twilight years of Jordan Baker, while I attempted to conceal how startling it is to walk forward into a shopping cart that has been propelled backward into you and your abdomen. What makes the Market Basket an unusual setting is that in spite of the many ways shopping there is a wretched and soul-crushing ordeal, none of these have ever been due to the staff; in fact, the staff  has always been impressively helpful and considerate, not to mention far more friendly than I would be if I worked at the Market Basket; in fact, I don’t work at the Market Basket, and they are, on the whole, still considerably nicer than I am to anyone on any given day.

Even the recent unpleasant encounter itself began as an attempt on the part of a Basket employee to be helpful. She had been dispatched by another customer who was waiting in the parking lot for a friend – wearing a green hat – inside the store, to inform the behatted individual that the individual in the car was waiting still, but, for reasons unknown to me and which I have been unable to reconstruct, was waiting in a location other than the location the friend in the green hat was expecting, but would be easy for the friend in the green hat to find once given the directions to that other location, which had been  entrusted to the Market Basket employee by the individual in the car.

The reason that I know all of this is because, of course, I was wearing a green hat. And because of that, and because the Market Basket employee was on the lookout for a woman in a green hat, I was approached and informed while in the checkout lane that my friend was now waiting in the far left corner of the parking lot. Having discharged this vital information, the Market Basket employee stood, almost rocking back on her heels ever so lightly, spine straight, awaiting the accolades that were clearly her due. It should come as no surprise, then, that she was not pleased to be presented not with a shower of rose petals, treasure beyond imagination, and promises of everlasting gratitude, but with this:

“Uh. . . I didn’t come to the store with anyone? So there’s no one in the parking lot waiting for me.”

I, of course, had expectations of my own how the Market Basket employee would respond : surprise, perhaps a touch of chagrin, and, of course, there was no question that the word “sorry” would come in to play. So it should, again, come as no surprise when, instead of any of these, the employee dug in:

Actually, I don’t remember exactly what she said; this would probably be a better blog if I could, but, like that long-ago Sociology class, time has passed.  What’s important is not her precise words, but her insistence that the message was for me. Ever the model Market Basket employee, it was clear that, even though she was irritated, her effort in repeating the message to me was to jog my memory about my friend out there in the parking lot, and that it had to me because I was wearing a green hat.

Briefly I considered responding that it couldn’t be my friend out in the parking lot because no one knew I was at the Market Basket, but I’ve seen way too many episodes of Criminal Minds to think that’s a good idea; while Oola knows that it’s her responsibility, as it was Mokie’s before her, to avenge my death, and I know that her vengeance would be swift, terrible, and just (seriously; I love Mokie, but the worst thing she ever did was pee on my slipper – which, yes, was gross, but it’s not like I was even wearing it at the time; Oola, on the other hand, will rip your face off for no other reason than your face is in front of her and she feels like it; of the two, she will clearly be the more effective vigilante), I’d rather not go missing and unleash her adorable fury on the world just yet, so I simply repeated that I had come to the store myself. As additional evidence, I mentioned that I walked to the store, so there couldn’t be a car waiting for me.

At this point, another Market Basket employee, the woman in charge of bagging my groceries, tried to chime in in my defense, but her words were lost in the increasing volume of the original Market Basket employee who was irritated and frustrated and only trying to do someone a favor and again these were not her exact words but how could I possibly not understand that someone in the parking lot was looking for someone wearing a green hat and I was wearing a green hat so it could be proven mathematically that I was without question the person being looked for and also, did I mention, green hat?

That I was wearing a green hat can not be argued (although, honestly, I would never describe that hat as “green”; it’s a shade of green certainly, but a yellowy green, like a celery heart, rather than the nice, vibrant pea green that most people think of when thinking “green”) (and obviously, in that last aside, by “most people”, I meant “me”). The issue then, was this : did her knowledge of me, which extended no further than “wearing a green hat,” outweigh my knowledge of me, which encompasses my ENTIRE FUCKING LIFE? In a word : no. No, it did not. Nor did the fact that I was wearing a green hat mean that there were no other women in the store wearing green hats; that what you are looking for is always in the last place you look for it because once you find it you stop looking does not always mean that once you stop looking you’ve found it.

Yet there was no way to explain this to her, not that I could see, and not without profanity. Any argument that lasts through three iterations with neither side yielding even slightly is not one that anyone can win, as each side will simply become more and more entrenched in whatever stand it is that they’re taking. Which, in this case, although we each were using more words, basically boiled down to “are too/am not”. And even though I – the “am not” half – was unassailably right (see above comment re: entire fucking life), it was not a dignified position, nor one I could maintain if I wished to extricate myself from the discussion.

Were my life a hilarious sitcom, I might have done something clever like pulling the green hat of contention off my head and stuffing it in my bag, while saying “Look – no more green hat! Now do you believe it’s not me?” (or something like that; I’d probably hire better writers.) Or I’d tell her I wasn’t the droid she was looking for, while gently waving my hand in front of her face. And if I ever get a time machine, I’ll probably go back and do both of those things.* But since life is not a sitcom, I realized that my only way out was to go into the crevasse. I looked the Market Basket employee square in the eye and said as genuinely as I could “Thank you; I’ll keep an eye out for her in the parking lot.”

Whether she believed that I had come around to her way of thinking or not, the Market Basket employee recognized this as the end of the conversation, and took this as her cue to walk away. Though briefly a relief, this quickly turned out to be kind of a shame, since about 27 seconds later a woman wearing a green hat walked by uncertainly, clearly in search of something but not knowing where to go. I considered approaching her to let her know where in the parking lot she could find her ride, but I had had more than enough of green hats for the day, so I chose to leave instead. Like I said above : I don’t work at the Market Basket, and I’m still not that nice.

*If I ever do get a time machine, I’ll be so busy issuing witty retorts that I’ll completely forget to do the important things, like preventing bad hair cuts and investing in Apple in the ’80s.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7 other followers

Fun With Song Lyrics

what we talked about when we talked about love in the '80s

The Cambridge Room

Historic tidbits, facts, and notes of interest on Cambridge, Massachusetts brought to you by the Cambridge Public Library's Archivist.

PST...

My Life in Pacific Standard Time

Grammar Party

a blog about grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and sometimes cats

Everything's JOK

Just one idiot's opinon.

TPN meets FOG

Swirling about in the fog of the SF Bay Area and my head