|I don't know who this is,|
but I don't think
she's an optimist.
The advice columnist Carolyn Hax recently explained to a writer why it is easier to be unhappy than optimistic.
"Optimism," said Ms. Hax, "demands that you greet new people and situations with an open mind, instead of just lumping them into some lazy category of Things You Already Know."
There is no better place to witness people and situations you don't already know than the supermarket, or as I like to refer to it, life school.
Sooner or later, we all show up in this place of aisles that reflect our myriad needs, and stand in lines with our choices of how to meet them.
There is this man I see there at least twice a month. He's a giant guy, several inches over six feet and not fat but, well, "stocky." He looks like David Crosby does now.
I notice him because I won't forget the first time I saw him.
It was during the summer last year and we were in Produce. The woman he was with was tiny, just over five feet tall. She wore enormous dark glasses that covered half her face, had a blond beehive hairstyle and was dressed in an expensive looking sheath dress and high-heeled strappy sandals. She looked like she'd just come from a cocktail party in 1965.
She trailed the big man in sullen silence, as if they'd left an unfinished argument in the car.
As happens when you start with others in Produce, the giant man, his unhappy companion and I began to journey through the aisles together, from Deli, into Beverages and onto Spices and Salad Dressings. Very thoughtfully, he placed things in his cart while the woman said nothing.
She erupted in Nuts and Canned Vegetables.
"What the hell did you just say to me?" she hissed.
The man didn't say or do anything, and so, loudly, she repeated the question.
With his silence, she only became more agitated.
They reached the end of the aisle and were out in the open now, in the stretch that separates the registers from the ends of the aisles.
"You don't talk to me like that!" she said. "You know what? You're the biggest asshole I know."
"And you are drunk," the giant man finally said.
The crowd stepped to the side as they approached, but then clustered in their wake, saying to each other, "Did you see that?" Cashiers gaped. Small children stopped slapping each other in line to watch.
"Oh, man," whispered an employee next to me, pen poised over his clipboard.
"I DON'T HAVE TO BE HERE!" the woman yelled, and wobbled toward the exit.
The giant man rolled up to a line next to mine. Something in the way his gaze traveled, settling on nothing, seemed practiced. I tried not to look over; nobody wants to see their misery reflected in someone else's expression, but then he looked right at me.
It wasn't a look that said you don't know the half of it, or, I know, right? It was a look that said no big deal.
And then he looked away.
I saw them again about a month later as they left a local restaurant. He walked ahead, she stumbled after him, nipping at his heels.
If you were in your underthings, and the house caught fire, and you had to run outside as you were, because you had no time to grab a robe, you wouldn't care that neighbors saw you in your next to nothing, you'd be worried about what could be perishing inside, in the flames.
To witness, and withhold judgment, ignore your assumptions – why would anyone put up with that? – like happiness, is harder to achieve sometimes, but worth it. It's something I've begun to do reflexively. Maybe because I've learned that I usually don't know the half of it, or just don't like being judged myself.
Or maybe it's because we're hearing from so many from different walks who have felt so misunderstood for so long by those people who don't greet new people and situations with an open mind, and do lump them into some lazy category of Things They Already Know.
Several times since that afternoon in Produce, I've seen that giant man on his own in the supermarket, strolling with his cart, looking at labels, calmly adding things, moving on.
Yesterday, I pulled into the parking lot and had to wait to park behind a big truck that had stopped in front of the door. From the rear view mirror hung a handicapped placard. The plate said "Veteran." I heard yelling.
"Don't you tell me to shut up!"
The giant man was in the front seat, and the 1965 woman was struggling to get into the passenger seat.
He looked at me as I passed. I looked at him. Again, I glimpsed that veteran plate.
In my category of things I already know, this is an intolerable situation, a house on fire. But in the category of things the giant man already knows, this could be underthings, while more important things have not yet perished, or harder things have already happened.
I don't know the half of it.
But at life school, is where I have learned how to keep the door to my mind from swinging shut, because those doors lock from the outside. Then, there you are, stuck with the other half.
Note: Other campuses of life school are conveniently located at the DMV or the ER, but they don't offer upbeat, overhead music from the seventies that will stay in your head for the rest of the day.