When my 20yo son got a little cabin fever, I took him grocery shopping. We came around a corner and found the aisle blocked by an elderly couple with walkers very intently pondering the merits of various breakfast cereals. With them was a woman about my age, taking charge of their cart and patiently asking a lot of yes/no questions in order to facilitate their decisions.
The woman — presumably the daughter — made eye contact with me. She took in the situation, and then looked back at me with a kind of trapped expression. I took it to mean she was hoping I’d back up and pick another aisle, since it would be a complex logistical operation to get the older couple, their walkers, and the cart far enough over for me to pass.
But I didn’t actually want to pass by — I wanted to browse the cereals, and they were there first. So I smiled, and put my hands out in a “go on with what you are doing, I won’t interfere” gesture, and pulled out my phone. I sent Peter for something in another part of the store and told him I’d meet him there. I was in no rush.
Over the next few minutes, the daughter shot me several increasingly intense glances, as if to say, “Are you really okay with waiting?” I had to intensify my “this doesn’t bother me at all, I’m perfectly fine” gestures.
Out in the parking lot, owing to all the pre-holiday shopping, the line to exit to the street was backed up past my space. When someone right in front of me pulled out of the queue to park next to me, I nosed forward into the empty space, only to find the next person in line, who pretended not to notice me, was deliberately shutting me out of the space.
She ended up waiting out the light cycle directly in front of me. When I looked straight ahead I was looking at her profile. With an innocent expression she continued to pretend not to notice she had cut me off, but I guess guilt or curiosity got the better of her, and she glanced to her left.
I was ready.
With a smile already fixed to my face, I let loose a flurry of hand gestures — a peace sign, the Vulcan sign, the sign of the cross, the heart sign, random ASL prepositions, rocks, scissors, paper… every salute but the one she was probably expecting.
Each time she looked away, I would make a new gesture and hold it until she glanced back. I kept it up for much longer than necessary, because I had nothing better to do and I thought it would amuse my son.
When the line finally started moving, she shook her head and started talking to herself as she pulled away. I don’t know what she was saying.
Peter, being very verbal and intellectual, often requests a debriefing after witnessing a complex social encounter. “Were you actually annoyed, or were you just acting?” he asked.
“Both,” I said. “She already knew perfectly well what she had done was selfish. Because I’m feeling both trapped and petty, I did wanted to scold her, and I wanted to do it without sinking to her level. When rude people cut me off in traffic, I think to myself that I’m lucky because I’ll probably never see them again, while they are stuck with their miserable selves for the rest of their lives.”
I’m far from perfect. I’ve had some bad days. But I peopled alright today.