porcelainandporcupines

Posts Tagged ‘talking to strangers

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.
Him: UNACCEPTABLE!

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.

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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.

One comment that I’ve received in response to my writing a number of times over the years is that I write just like I talk. While I’ve always taken that to be a compliment (and by “always” I mean “all three times”), I’ve felt somewhat like a fraud accepting it. Because the truth of the matter is that I don’t at all write like I talk; rather, I talk like I write.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. There was a time, not too long ago, when I actually spoke like a normal person. That all changed, however, when I started blogging. Writing about what I was doing influenced the way I viewed every situation, and that, in turn, changed that way I spoke about them. From there, it was just a short jump to changing the way I spoke about everything.

Now, so many years on down the road, I couldn’t stop talking like this even if I wanted to. Which has been awkward in some situations. More awkward, however, are the times that I’ve tried to stop; my occasional efforts at normal vocal communications have met with some spectacular failures.

The most recent spectacle occurred a few short weeks ago. Due to some personal computronical issues, I was forced to use the public library computers to find a place where I could take my computer for repair. As I sat there, trying to find a place that would charge me less than my own employer would to fix my computer, I overheard a fellow – a library patron – say to one of the librarians – a fellow – something about not knowing the author of  Into the Wild.

I fought back the urge to immediately jump into the conversation and show off that I knew – I’ve shelved that book a number of times (that number being higher than the number of times I’ve been told that I write just like I talk), and every time made a mental note that I should read it; even if I never do, the author’s name will forever be etched in my memory. But, I hadn’t heard the beginning of the conversation. Perhaps there was some sort of wager in place and knowing the author’s name would exclude him from the prize. Or maybe the guy hated the movie version so much that he was looking for the author’s name so he could track him down and punch him in the face; I wouldn’t want to be a party to that.

Plus, this wasn’t my library; while I have yet to receive my official copy of The Big Book of Librarian Etiquette, I feel confident that Don’t Show Up Another Librarian On Her Home Turf has to be, like, rule #5, after Accept With Good Grace And Gentle Deflection All Comments About Sexy Librarians, Politely Inform Those Who Ask That Plenty Of People Even Read Anymore,  Don’t Shush Your Fellow Librarians Even If They’re The Noisiest People In The Building, and Never Comment On The Size Of A Gentleman’s Book. So I sat quietly at my computer, graciously allowing my fellow Librarian  to claim the glory that was rightly his by providing the patron with the requested information. Except that he didn’t. “I don’t know either,” was all he said in reply.

Over and above any other rule of Librarian Etiquette is Represent Librarians In The Best Possible Light At All Times, which is so obvious that it never even needs to be stated. Telling a patron that you don’t know something is fine; failing to follow-up with an offer to find out, when you are seated at the service desk, right in front of a computer, is unacceptable. I may have been loathe to break rule #5, but he seemed in danger of giving librarians everywhere a bad name; I really had no other choice but to pipe up from across the room with “Krakauer; John Krakauer”. It took a couple of repetitions before they understood what I was saying (I think my mispronunciation of the name – it’s actually Jon Krakauer – proved momentarily confusing), but finally, librarian and patron alike were fully aware of just who was the author of Into the Wild.

I was exceptionally pleased at the job well done, but not so much so that I wasn’t inclined to respond with modesty to the little girl seated at the computer next to me, who looked at me with wide eyes and said “Wow, you’re really smart.” Except that my stated response “Well, I knew that,” came out less of a humble “Well, I got lucky and  happened to know the particular piece of information they were looking for,” and more of a “Yes, I am well aware of how exceedingly intelligent I am, little girl – thank you.”

She looked abashed and returned her focus to her computer screen. Eventually I figured out where I had gone wrong, but it was too late. Over explaining the error didn’t make it any clearer to the child and didn’t make her feel any better, but it did make me feel like a jerk. Probably I should have written her a note; then she would’ve understood what I meant.


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