Archive for the ‘talking to strangers’ Category

One time, when I was walking across the Acme parking lot, a man driving a giant  delivery truck started talking to me from the cab.

If you are unfamiliar with Southeastern Pennsylvania, the Acme may be a bit confusing to you. Although the Acme Corporation is most famous for providing Wile E. Coyote with complex contraptions that never worked as intended, in Pennsylvania, the Acme was the local grocery store.

Today I think it is owned by the same company that owns Stop and Shop. In the ‘80s there was nothing at all remarkable about it. I remember waiting in long lines at the Customer Service booth while my mom picked up pictures when I was younger, and buying the Weekly World News there along with a selection of Healthy Choice frozen dinners for my grandmother when I was older and I did the shopping. Once, I stuck some shampoo I bought the previous day back on the shelf because I immediately hated the smell of it, knew it couldn’t be returned because it had been opened, but also felt it would be a waste to throw it away when so little had been used.

I do feel a little bit bad for whoever else ended up buying that shampoo, if it freaked them out that it was already opened. My hope is that maybe they were so excited for strawberry shampoo they didn’t notice.

Anyway, I don’t know what I’d purchased on this particular night, but it was something, because I remember strolling across the parking lot, swinging my plastic bag full of purchases in the carefree way young girls have always swung bags as they stride off toward their futures or their cars in the parking lot. What I do know is that the man driving the delivery truck rolled down his window and started talking to me.

There was nothing remarkable about most of his conversational attempt, but I do want to remark upon how abruptly it ended. After a few rounds of probably pleasant inanities, he asked if I was in school.

“Yes,” I replied. “I go to Lower Merion.” Because why not share that with a stranger in a parking lot? I was dumb.

“Oh, is that one of the colleges in the area?” he asked, which I thought was weird. How could you be in Merion and not know what Lower Merion was?

“No,” I said, overwhelmed with disdain. “It’s the high school?”

I could not have been more scornful, but I don’t think that’s entirely what motivated his response. Which was:

“Oh, SHIT, you’re in high school??!?!!?” before rolling up his window immediately and driving away.

So my point here is, while it is entirely possible for an older man to mistake the age of a high school girl, it isn’t an accident if he continues to pursue her after finding out the truth. Especially if that pursuit leads him to call the local high school in search of her. Everyone has it within him to roll that window back up and drive on down the road. If they’re not doing that, it is because there is something deeply wrong with them that they cannot prioritize the safety and well-being of children. And an unwillingness to protect the most vulnerable should be an immediate disqualification from holding a leadership position in our society. That delivery guy got it; I just hope Alabama gets it too.


The summer after my freshman year, I had a job telemarketing. I was not particularly good at it; despite the one day I was the top seller in the office, thanks to the 8 cups of coffee I drank out of a ceramic demi-tasse with a black exterior and white interior which I stole at the end of the day and which today I regret not knowing what I did with, I never was able to sell enough to meet the minimum weekly quota to earn a bonus. So, while on the down side that meant that I was not making a lot of money, it should be noted that I was at least getting rejected a lot. People do not like telemarketers, I tell you what.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that the main problem with my sales technique was that I apologetic about the invoice : the way I hit the would in our scripted “After two months, you would be sent an invoice,” let them know that I wasn’t really behind the product. Sure, they would get the Non-Profit Board Report for 2 months, and that’s cool, but, even if they enjoyed it, they’d still have to deal with this invoice in 2 months time. Like, you’re a non-profit organization and that we respect that, and our publication might help with the management of that organization (I think? I don’t know if I ever saw a copy of the Non-Profit Board Report). But we are not a non-profit organization, and we will charge you. Of course, you could cancel the invoice, but the way it was set up, we were basically coming as close to ripping you off as the bounds of the law would allow. All of that, conveyed with a simple would.

However, sometimes the problem was that the leads weren’t very good. That was the culprit the week we were selling The Marketing Report and all of the businesses that the list of contacts spit out were slaughterhouses.

As it turns out, slaughterhouses are not really all that concerned with marketing, for the reason eloquently provided by the gentleman on the other end of the phone who, in response to my request to be connected with the marketing department, drawled “Lady, all we do is kill old pigs.”

The brilliance of that response, of the unconcerned deliberation that made it clear that the foolishness of my question would not be entertained, has always made it one of the great joys of my life. However, as much as I appreciated the laconic verbal smack-down that put my self-hating would to shame before it could even be uttered, what I did not realize until this past week is that what I truly admire about that gentleman is the simplicity of purpose expressed. This is not someone who’s ever had to worry about an elevator pitch, of breaking down an overly complex process into its component parts, who has to chase fads, keep up with the latest technology, or worry about obsolescence. As long as there is an old pig that needs killing, this guy is in business : that is the hedgehog-like focus that proves elusive for most companies.

It’s the professional equivalent of my gastronomical envy of pandas, who only eat bamboo; fortunately for the panda, bamboo is only eaten by them. I enjoy the lovely natural symmetry of that relationship, in no small part because it relieves all of panda-kind of most food-related stressors : a panda never has to figure out what to do for lunch, or what it’s in the mood for. There are no ethical implications to panda’s diet, it doesn’t matter if the bamboo has been humanely raised or if it’s locally sourced. The question of what to eat has been so solidly settled for pandas that it never even needs to be raised; a panda only gets as far as “what” before it realizes that the answer is “bamboo”. It’s bamboo; it’s always bamboo.

Make no mistake : I don’t want to switch to a diet of only bamboo any more than I want to make a career of killing old pigs. Or pigs of any age. It’s just that, every now and then, instead of answers, what I would like is a lack of questions.

I love to walk; it’s my primary mode of transportation, and while I know that there are definite benefits to driving – primarily being that I could leave things in the car, rather than toting everything I own around with me all the time so that I can get to work, eat lunch, and go to yoga all in the same day – I am, at my core, a pedestrian. I like the fact that it takes time to get places, that I can let my attention wander as I go; as a pedestrian I can stop without warning if the candy factory smells particularly good, or turn around to head back the other way as soon as I realize that I’ve forgotten something or that I did, in fact, just walk past a yard filled with poultry. You can’t do that with a car. Nor can you find the amazing things that people drop in the gutter; it’s not just doll heads, you know – sometimes it’s money.

Of course, there are drawbacks to being a pedestrian, and, as with driving, the biggest problem is other pedestrians.  (Well, with driving, it’s other drivers; you know what I mean). You don’t hear about it much, probably because it’s not sexy like Road Rage and Air Rage, but Pedestrian Rage is a very real problem, even on the historical brick sidewalks of Cambridge, as I was reminded tonight.

I was making my way to yoga after work, as I am wont to do. To be honest, I was not moving as fast as I could have been – my feet hurt a little bit, and I was preoccupied with my plan to stop at CVS beforehand, which suddenly seemed ill-considered – but neither was I moving unreasonably slowly; in my opinion, I was moving at an entirely reasonable rate for a person carrying 3 bags and a yoga mat, who has more than enough time to arrive at her destination.

The gentleman walking behind me felt otherwise. I know this because, as he walked past me he turned his face toward me and said “I guess I’ll just walk the other way.” And even though, in that context, the words he used don’t make any sense, I knew exactly what he meant. As a pedestrian, I have felt it – the rage that builds as you’re stuck behind someone who is so inconsiderate as to be walking slower than you want to be going; or a group of people so up their own asses that they dare walk 3 abreast on the sidewalk, leaving no room at all for those of us who actually have places to be to get around them; or some mother who UNBELIEVABLY actually purchased a sturdy stroller in which to push around her stupid baby she’ll probably spoil, a stroller so unwieldy that her efforts to navigate around the tree roots buckling up through that historic brick back pedestrian traffic up so far that you actually have to WALK IN THE FUCKING STREET just to be on your way.

As I huff past these inconsiderate people who are willfully ignoring my presence – they know I’m there; they’re just being dicks – I often have the urge to snarl something at them, along the lines of a sarcastic “no, that’s fine; I’ll just go around,” or, on days when I’m not feeling quite so expansive, a simple, barked “MOVE!” But I don’t, because I know, no matter how irritated I am, that I am being ridiculous; that the people most likely don’t know that I’m there, or that I am filled with hate for them, and a simple “excuse me” would probably get them out of my way; in short, I know that, the novel of my life, wherein I am the heroine and also the center of the entire universe, is only being read by me. The people in front of me don’t realize they’re inconveniencing the most important person who ever lived because a.) they don’t know I’m there; and b.) from their perspective, they’re the most important person who ever lived. Which is as it should be, I think; no one should be a supporting player in their own life.

So when this gentleman said to me “I guess I’ll just walk the other way,” despite the nonsense of his words, I knew that he meant “I AM VERY IMPORTANT AND YOU ARE HOLDING ME UP!” Which is fine – I get that; he jangled as he walked passed like he had a lot of keys on him, and I saw what looked like a pair of needle-nosed pliers in his back pocket, which, to me, signify a man who means business, a man of action, a man who will be prepared to change the channel on a broken television set if he somehow gets transported back to 1978.

So I wasn’t offended by this comment of his, and despite recognizing his importance, that he was inconvenienced by me didn’t strike me as a terribly pressing issue; despite the multitude of bags, I was one person, on a wide sidewalk that was completely clear of the snow that can reduce the world to walking in single file, and no one was walking toward us – conditions could not have been more favorable for easily passing me. So my response to him was a relaxed “That’s why there’s the whole sidewalk; so you can go around.” Not, it should be noted, said sarcastically, but in my soothing voice, the voice I use to help people find things in the library : “Oh, you can’t see a way to get around me? That’s ok, I can help; there’s a whole sidewalk right here that you can use. Look at how life works, making things easy for everyone; isn’t it grand?”

Unfortunately, angry people sometimes don’t like a calm response; sometimes, in fact, it only makes them angrier. As it did in this case, when the gentleman responded with a very sarcastic “Oh, like I could really go around,” while stretching his arms out wide as though he were going to wrap them around a hippopotamus, as though embracing a hippopotamus weren’t the worst idea ever due to their notoriously bad tempers AND their habit, when they defecate under water, of using their tail to churn the water, in essence flinging their poop everywhere.

Which, in a nutshell, is kind of what this guy did to me. Which, in a weird way, makes me feel a little bit better about the whole interaction. Because at first, I was extremely upset; not because of any aspersions cast about my weight – I realize that any suggestion that my circumference presents a challenge to navigation is patently ridiculous. Yet, however invalid his word choice, as with his first sentence, his intent was clear and that intent was aggressive hostility. And no matter how may times I replayed the encounter, I could not for the life of me see what I’d done to deserve that. I wasn’t mean to him; I was utterly neutral.

And that, it turns out, was the problem. Because when I took a moment to attempt to read that chapter of our lives from his novel through the lens of my novel, it went like this:

Him: Pay attention to me!
Me: There’s no need to pay attention to you.

Since we, as a species, frown on violence but also eschew the waste-based communications, this gentleman had very few options – I didn’t escalate the argument giving him reason to attack, but he had to express his frustration in some fashion, so he chose to fling some metaphorical feces at me and deliver a personal, albeit groundless, insult.

And that’s what makes me feel better, weirdly. Because always, always the most upsetting thing about this kind of interaction (which, you’ll come to see, happens kind of a lot) is that it upsets me. No matter how many times I think “Don’t let it get to you,” it does, and that makes it worse. Should I not have a reaction when someone deliberately throws poop into my day? I think I should. What I would like, however, is to be able to respond to it a little bit better. Not that I want to walk around expecting angry jabs and spurious insults from every person I meet; that wouldn’t be better. Nor would I necessarily want the presence of mind to think of a cutting insult in response; like with the hippo, once you start spraying that shit around, it just gets everywhere.

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.

Discouraging the friendly spirit of a little girl so she’ll likely never say positive things to a stranger again concluded my business at the public library, so I awkwardly gathered up my things and made my way home to call the various emporia of computer repair, the retrieval of whose contact information had been the sole purpose of my library trip. Settling on the one with the most reasonable rates within the most reasonable walking distance from my house, I dropped off my little laptop at a local Cambridge business, then returned home and attempted to fill the empty hours with meaningful activities, like reading and quiet contemplation – and entertaining Oola, of course – but I think I ended up just sleeping a lot and thinking about cookies.

That strange, computer-less existence mercifully lasted less than 24 hours; I got a call the following afternoon, and, in my joy, practically ran to the shop to pick up the probably close to obsolete but still worth repairing machine that is so dear to me (hey, remember when I hated computers and didn’t have one in my house? That was only 5 years ago. And, totally OT, but remember how I used to hate texting? And abbreviations?  Oh, the times – how they have changed me; I wonder if there will ever be a day that I don’t look back on a previous version of myself and wonder at the many different ways in which I sucked).

Unburdened by these thoughts at the time, I noted that the Professional Geek had changed the user icon on my computer, which I had never changed from the default MSN Marigold, to an adorable blue-eyed kitten; this pleased me greatly, as, when he’d enquired who regularly used the computer the day before when I dropped it off, I mentioned that Oola – referred to only as “my cat”  – while a casual user at best, did like to step across the keyboard from time to time. It was nice to think we’d developed some kind of rapport during the previous day’s professional business transaction, and that my needs as a user – someone who uses the Internet, Word, and has a cat – were now fully represented on my computer.

This pleasantness was very soon rent asunder, as PG began to recount the many things on my computer that he’d managed to save. It was indeed a thorough list, and while it made me happy at the beginning, as it went on I began to notice one thing he wasn’t mentioning, one thing I’d failed to bring up the day before, one thing that really, really needed to be saved:

“What about my passwords? Like online?” I asked.

He recitation faltered. “No,” he said. “You didn’t ask me to save those.”


And let me interrupt myself here to note that the disappointment I was attempting to express was directed entirely at myself. I know there’s a way to make that obvious when you’re actually in conversation with someone without having to make this kind of aside, but knowing something and knowing how to do something are, apparently, two very different things.

Despite my best intentions, this was not expressed as self-recriminatory thinking aloud, but instead as though I had been disappointed by the professional geekery of the young man before me. And so he, as one does, got defensive.

“If you told us that when you dropped it off, we could have backed that up. But you didn’t mention it.”

His expressive capabilities are superior to mine, because this was not in any way hostile, as it might seem on the page. Still, I could tell I’d said the wrong thing and, as I had the day before, attempted to over correct.

“I really need those.” Then it occurred to me that it was nearing the end of the month. “Shoot,” I continued (I don’t like to swear around strangers) “I have to pay my bills soon. I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do that.”

Properly expressed, those words would’ve said “Dude, I’m an idiot; thanks for your efforts, though – but boy, did I hose myself on this one.” They were not, however, properly expressed.

PG could only respond that I hadn’t mentioned that when I dropped off the computer. Because, that was the truth; he shouldn’t have needed to say anything else. However, I believe I mentioned elsewhere my own Repetition Tolerance Timeline – if you don’t remember it, shame on you! But also, here’s a reminder: It’s short. And, if my efforts to communicate to you that I understand are failing and I am consequently exasperated, it gets shorter. And so, after another round of me “explaining” and him defending, this happened:

“Ok, well, when I get my time machine, I will go back to yesterday and do that right.”

There’s no inflection in the world that would have made that the right thing to say. And kudos to PG for taking it like a champ; he simply guided the conversation toward the register, so that our business could be concluded and I could be on my way.

As a post script – at several weeks remove from the incident, it’s quite a relief that the Geeks don’t just take it upon themselves to back-up your passwords – inconvenient though it might be for me to actually have to actually remember something, it would be incredibly invasive for them to do otherwise. Also, apparently it’s possible that Firefox wouldn’t let them? Having been faced with an irrational customer or two in my day, I can see how that might’ve slipped PG’s mind at the time.

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