There’s a pandemic, you idiot!
I heard the words loud and clear in my head before opening up my arms and giving one of the longest hugs of my life to a complete stranger.
To quote Inigo Montoya, “Let me start at the beginning. No, there’s too much. Let me sum up…” The world is swimming in a dreaded pandemic which has been ridiculously politicized in the US. People are living under unimaginable stress with death and misfortune everywhere. Add to the mix a holiday season with well publicized shortages, inflation, and people desperate to return to some sense of normalcy. Daily, the media highlight people having childish temper tantrums and taking their frustrations out on innocent bystanders. I had the misfortune to witness one first hand yesterday.
Sunday morning shopping at big box stores is anathema to me; I’d rather chew glass than be in a large crowd of people in a hurry. But Christmas be Christmas and one does what one must do. I masked up, armed with sanitizing gel in the car as I’ve done for going on two years now. I knew that any hope of getting in and getting out was useless, so I made the deliberate choice to go in with my best holiday spirit, my best sense of humor, and every bit of patience at my disposal. I entered humming Christmas carols, I was that determined.
And (maybe fortune favors the tone-deaf) I lucked out and quickly found the very last items I needed to complete my Christmas shopping. I will now pause to let you deal with the pangs of envy you must be feeling.
Ahem, to continue… I took my place in line with one couple being rung up, followed by an Old Feller whose few items were already on the conveyor. A young feller stood with a full cart appropriately distanced between OF and my half-filled cart. Every cashier line was full of heavily loaded carts and I counted myself lucky to have so few in front of me. I stood there waiting for the first couple to finish, which they promptly did paying with cash. Unfortunately, many before them also used cash and the cashier, a young woman in a hajib, did not have sufficient change to give them in her till. She put on the blinking light that summoned a manager.
I began fidgeting after two minutes, and three minutes after that the young feller took his full cart to another lane, getting in a much longer line. I moved up to six feet behind OF who began muttering darkly about the wait. We finally saw the floor manager wending her way to our lane, stopped here by one employee and there by another, answering questions thrown by harried customers quickly and efficiently but still slowed by the sheer number of requests being made of her. She apologized to the couple for their wait when she arrived and began promptly adding money to the till and recording it appropriately. OF urged her to hurry in irritated tones, threatening to leave his purchases on the belt and just take off. He looked over his shoulder to see if I appreciated his threat and I made the mistake of making eye contact. That encouraged him to get louder and more pointed in his abuse. Looking distinctly uncomfortable, the young couple took their change and fled.
It occurred to me that the manager looked rough, worn-out, as if hanging on by sheer will power. Although clean, her uniform was shabby and wrinkled. Her still thick hair, streaked with gray, fell to her shoulders with no shape. Her eyes busily darted from here to there, rarely landing on anything for long. Premature wrinkles creased forehead, eyes, chin, and firmly pressed lips. Swift hands moved fast as lightning; she finished filling the cash drawer, pocketing the paperwork while simultaneously closing the till.
The young cashier gamely stepped forward to ring up grumbling OF but her manager gestured her back and began ringing him up herself. It only took a couple of minutes to ring up his few purchases but when asked if he’d like to purchase the extended warranty for a small appliance he used profanity to bark his absolute refusal to wait one more second in line. The words ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, and ‘incompetent’ were hurled at both workers until his bag was thrust in his arms, his payment complete. Oh, did I mention OF was unmasked? Of course he was. The manager, cashier, and I were all masked. His petulant petty behavior was liberally sprayed over us all. We sighed simultaneously as he left.
The manager began responding to the clamoring for her attention once more as the young cashier looked up at me. As I lay my purchases on the conveyor belt, her eyes begged for understanding as she apologized for my wait. I looked directly at her and told her what he’d just done and said was all about him and not one bit about her. I asked if she was new, her nametag was hand-printed. She admitted it was her first week and I told her she’d handled herself admirably and wished her a much better day and happy holidays. Our eyes smiled at each other as I took my receipt and headed for the door.
Feeling good at having expressed my sympathy to the cashier, I waved the busy manager over to tell her the same thing. And that’s when it happened.
“You didn’t deserve what that man said and did,” I said, making direct eye contact. She seemed startled, her eyes widened and I knew I had her full attention.
“You did nothing wrong, as a matter of fact you handled yourself well, and I really admire how you protected your new employee back there.” Her eyes began to mist. She stared at me without blinking.
I don’t know who she lost but she was hearing someone else speak through me, someone who loved her, cared how she felt, and would have said what I said. (Given my gray hair and wrinkles I’m guessing her grandmother.) She began to crumple.
“You’re a good person who deserves to be treated well.” Her tears spilled over and as they traced down her cheeks a chasm of pain yawed open between us. I knew she needed more.
There’s a pandemic, stupid. You can’t hug strangers. You’ve been so careful up to now! I heard the warning in my head. I knew I was being reckless to the point of stupidity. But sometimes you chance crazy things because you’re driven to it.
I opened up my arms and gave the universal hand gesture for ‘bring it in’. She grabbed me like a life-preserver and sobbed, long heart-rending whimpers on my shoulder, shuddering to regain control. I held her, feeling her vulnerable humanity in my arms, her heart beating against my winter coat, her tears dampening my knit scarf, and knew I wouldn’t release her until she was ready.
A few minutes later, I was on my way back home. Yes, it was incredibly stupid to hold a complete stranger close to me, to risk my health and those of my loved ones to help ease the burden of someone I’ll never see again. And if I get sick, or pass something on to my family, I may never forgive myself.
How could I be so stupid? But I’ll be that stupid again tomorrow, if need be.
Covid may have us down, but we’re not defeated.