Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve always found, I’ve always been taught that a simple “please” and “thank you” goes a long way. I guess it was just the way I was raised, an old-fashioned value not necessarily drummed into me by my parents but more so shown to me by example. It always made me feel better about myself and instilled in others that their efforts mattered, and therefore, they mattered.
In a time in which people speed past on the sidewalk and are oblivious to anything or anyone other than their smart phones, it doesn’t take all that much for a little consideration. Last month, someone deep in thought and fixated on their hand-held device nearly trampled me at a cross walk. A side-swiping bump, a muffled grunt – forget an apology – and the person continued on. I had to place a hand on their arm with a glance at the red light above to prevent them from becoming a turning SUV’s hood ornament. No thank you for my effort, just a distracted gal’s eyes returning to her screen.
Last week at a local supermarket, standing before the meat counter waiting to get the clerk’s attention, I was jarred by a conversation over which I had no control. Sweeping past me was a fellow in his late 30s, clad in a wrinkled plaid shirt and khaki shorts. His ear buds we firmly secured to his head with a connecting line leading to a bulge in his back pocket. His conversation was loud and exasperated and he was oblivious, to a point, of his surroundings and those about him. Like the oaf who shouts louder when addressing someone who is hearing impaired, his conversation became all the more animated with each breath he drew.
The counter clerk and I just watched his performance and he seemed oblivious, too, to the looks of disdain he received from others. I’m sure he didn’t even care.
“Don’t you just hate that?” asked the clerk, catching my eye and shaking his head.
Last year at the same supermarket while on the express line, I had the misfortune of standing behind a woman in her mid-30s in striking business attire. She had a small basket in the crook of her arm with a smattering of items and a smart phone in the other hand pressed to her ear. With a price check delaying the line, I became privy to her animated conversation with an intimate friend. Before long, I came to know that her boss was a raving asshole, her children were driving her crazy, thank God for the Guatemalan nanny and that her husband was not holding up his end in bed. I may have blushed; I know that others in line within hearing distance certainly did and this nattily- dressed woman, too, couldn’t have cared less.
After another minute of this, I finally tapped her on the arm and got her attention.
“What!” she barked.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What? What? Hold on a minute,” she said, the latter remark directed to her friend on the line.
“Can I ask you a question,” I repeated.
“What? What is it?” She was becoming annoyed.
“Did you take a shower this morning?”
The woman glared at me and her eyes bulged. She stammered something in disbelief and her phone pulled away momentarily from her ear.
Her eyes grew narrow and her glare was piercing.
“How dare you … ”
“I just thought I’d ask since in the last few minutes, intimate details aside, I’ve learned everything else about you and your life. So, did you take a shower this morning?”
“You have some nerve!” she said, her voice rising in pitch.
“Actually,” I said, “I think that really applies to you, and if you should poll these folks standing on line with us, they just might agree.”
She muttered a curse, dropped her basket to the floor with a clatter, turned indignantly and headed for the exit.
A middle-aged woman behind me with a small, vegetable-laden cart took in the scene with great pleasure. She caught my eye, rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Was it something I said?” I asked.
A dear friend last year had to explain to me that the surely oblivious come in all sizes and shapes. A newly minted New Yorker, she explained that she’s still getting used to riding the city’s subways and dealing with “man spread” on a crowded train, the act of taking up one seat, spreading one’s legs and thereby making it nearly impossible for others to sit adjacent to you.
This is indeed a crazy world: With a deadly and heart-breaking school shooting in Texas this morning and a royal wedding set with much joy and anticipation across the pond tomorrow, it becomes hard to find moments of redemption.
Still, there are moments.
A local pizza parlour in a neighboring town in a hole-in-the-wall spot is celebrating its 38th anniversary. I came to learn that to their customers and the community, the owners give away free slices as a way of saying thanks for their loyal patronage. By chance I was in the neighborhood Monday and stopped by for a slice. I had never been there before and am always looking for a decent enough pie to bring home as a break from cooking. I’m Sicilian and was raised in part in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where in my youth each block seemed to have its very own pizzeria, with its own unique and savory take on sauce. (It was years later that I came to learn that many were just fronts for back-room numbers operations. Still, they had to keep up appearances!)
As I walked to the parlour entrance, I noticed two eight-foot folding tables with discarded paper plates heaped with the remnants of pie crust. A garbage can stood off to the side, mostly empty.
A steady stream of high school kids filtered in and out, laughing and jeering, each one laden with slices in both hands. A counter was lined with fresh, hot slices and patrons were encouraged to help themselves. The teens scampered back and forth, their eyes lowered and looking as if they’d pinched an extra desert on the school cafeteria lunch line. Behind me was “Big Boy,” a huge swarthy fellow wolfing down slices at a good pace and returning for more.
I decided to savor a slice and stand back to watch humanity. That’s what writers do.
“Big Boy” was soon joined by “Glutton Gavone,” who struck me as a local businessman happy to partake of the freebies. His hair was colored dark and he was short in stature, but made up for it with an overhang paunch. “Gavone” kept egging on “Big Boy” to down another slice and he was more than willing to oblige. In the 10 minutes that I stood to the side taking in the sights, “Big Boy” knocked back 15 slices. In another corner were two aged sisters, locals was my guess, taking a slice here, a slice there and stockpiling others on paper plates on a counter corner well out of sight. I had the impression that their biggest concern was how to spirit their bounty out the door without anyone noticing, all to be wrapped in aluminum foil once they reached home and then frozen for meals through the week. The crew behind the counter making the pies and handing out slices were way too busy to have noticed, anyway.
This mad rush of humanity shared one thing: They all stared at their hands or glanced at their feet when snatching up slices and scurrying away.
I returned to the counter for a second slice and caught the eye of one young and harried owner.
“Thank you,” I said, “for going though the trouble of doing this. It’s very nice of you and you make a really good pie.”
He looked at me with an appreciative glance, a half smile and seemed touched. I finished my slice out of harm’s way as more and more people entered the small eatery to partake. Feeling claustrophobic, I headed for the door and my parked car.
“Excuse me, excuse me, sir,” I heard someone call out behind me. I stopped and turned and the young owner saddle up beside me. He held out two discount coupons for future use and placed them in my hand.
“That’s for you,” he said, smiling. “Since we’ve been doing this giveaway, you’re the only one who’s said thank you.”
Our eyes held for a moment longer and I just didn’t know what to say.
Except for “Thank you all the more.”