Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Erin of the people

I am standing at the deli counter along with two dozen other tired, beleaguered prospective deli-item purchasers. We are all holding tiny pieces of paper shaped like arrows that we have plucked from a vertical red disc. My number is 88. The number on the back wall of the deli is 69.

I sigh, shift my weight from foot to foot and browse half-heartedly at the packages of sandwich rolls, melt-away mints and summer sausage. People grouse, but are polite and generally patient.

"Why do they only have two girls?"

"Damn rain."

And I always wax fond of my fellow humans when they offer humor when I least expect it.

"If I ordered that much gooseliver, my cardiologist would send a hearse around."

"Tell me about it. Goddamn Lipitor."

Right about the time the woman in the green smock behind the counter pulls the cord, changing the number display to 78, the fly nosedives into the ointment.

A woman in her 30's, slim and well dressed, hurriedly pushes her shopping cart, which is brimming with items from every other corner of the grocery store, up to the front of the deli counter.

"I'm 74!" she bellows. She steps in front of a small man in an ill-fitting suit who was approaching the counter, presumably #78.

I bristle.

"Sorry, sorry," says the woman without one hint of apology in her voice, "but as you can see, I am number 74." She holds up her ticket.

The little man steps back wordlessly, but not without a forehead wrinkled with irritation. The woman behind the counter rolls her eyes, but really, what are her options? "Can I help you?" she says flatly.

"Wait. One. Minute," I say in a voice that represents a surprising amount of authority for my 5' 1" frame.

Everything stops.

"The clerk has already called number 74," I say. "You were not present."

The woman turns to me incredulously.

"That little piece of paper does not hold your place in line," I say. "You don't take a ticket and come back at your convenience. It is completely inappropriate."

(Yes, dear reader, I really said this.)

"Excuse me?" says the woman, pulling out the u with cartoonish emphasis. "I am number 74."

"Well then," I says, "you only have 96 numbers to go."

Uneasy seconds pass. Neither of us is backing off. "I don't have time to wait in a line like this," she waves her hand at those waiting like they are the unwashed poor. "I am entirely too busy." She turns from me and says to the clerk, "One pound of the Bavarian on sale. Shaved."

I stare at her, blinking in disbelief.

"Madam," I say, "your time is no more valuable than mine or that of all these people who are patiently and politely waiting for their turn." I move uncomfortably close to her and speak in a controlled voice that remains loud enough for everyone to hear. "I will speak on behalf of everyone waiting in line," I say. "All of us have just done you the favor of allowing you to cut in line and proceed with your order. Do you understand? It was a gracious favor and for it, you are welcome."

She turns from my laser stare, takes her package of ham from the counter and says, "And a half pound of the baby Swiss," to the clerk, who is just trying to do her job and ignore the whole situation.

"I suggest when you leave here today," I continue to the woman, who is still not looking at me (or anyone else, after all, she has zero allies in this group), "that you look for a way to give someone a good turn, by way of repaying the good turn all of us have just given to you."

Incredibly, she continues with three or four other transactions as my eyes drill into her. She leaves wordlessly. Whether or not she is shamed, I have no idea. I garner nods of approval and a comment or two.

By the time my number comes up, the heat in my cheeks has faded. I apologize to the clerk. I buy bologna. I buy smoked turkey breast.

I have changed nothing.


jimbo said...

Naive young lady. If you were equiped with a male anatomy it would be obvious to not go "pissing in the wind". A useful messy exercise that has no redeeming value (beyond the age of 7).

Perhaps you should stay with the Satanic impulses.

FLAMINGO1 said...

I loved this post.

I had my wife read this post because I have embarassed her in public from time to time under similar circumstances.

After she read this, we were discussing it and arguing about your last line - "I have changed nothing."

My point - maybe not, but at least you feel as if you did something about this instead of sat back and been a victim.

Her response was, "Did she feel better?" and she told me to ask.

It is Valentines Day, what would a dutiful husband do except ask...so I am asking.

Even though you may not have shamed that person (who so badly needed to be shamed), did you feel empowered by taking action?

Did any of the other customers praise your actions for this? When I had a similar experience, nobody else spoke up, but several people approached me after the fact and voiced their appreciation for me saying something to this kind of person.

Happy Valentines Day!!

PDD said...

That woman should have been pulled up by her ponytail and swung up and around before being thrown violently into a cart, then rolled out the door and into oncoming traffic. Never mind the chit chat.

That should have changed something.

Would you have felt satisfied if you did that instead?

Would your wife prefer this to avoid the embarrassing conversation?

Confidential to anyone listening to me:
Swing by my place. I'd like you to meet my family.

Hal said...

Huh huh...you said 69...huh huh...

jennifer starfall said...

thanks for standing up, erin. she may remember you forever.

or she could just be that kind of fart-monkey that never accepts the fact of their asshole.

Bill Fitzgerald said...

Erin, your heart was in the right place, but you were just not vindictive enough. You have to speak to these people in a language they understand. You should have followed her to the checkout and cut in front of her at the last second, especially if she was headed for express and you had a cart full of stuff. Then you fumble for your coupons, drop your keys, and engage the cashier in idle chit-chat. Finally, wait in your car as she packs up, block her in, and go back inside to pick up a few more items.

Now, two-dozen people waiting in line at the deli? I've seen shorter lines for surplus government cheese. Time to find a new grocery store.

Satan said...

i would like to be uncomfortably close to you erin so you could do me a gracious favor

jungle jane said...

nice work, erin. you are my hero this week for this. i bet you did make a difference - i am sure she must feel like a scab...

josh williams said...

I'm about done with your book review. Next thing on my agenda is to read the book.
OK I know you writers are sensitive, I review books as a rule that I like, no matter what tangent the review takes, if I review... I like the book. Soon JW

kellywalters said...

you are a goddess

Stephanie Powers said...

You know I loved this piece. "Like the unwashed poor". Perfect. It would be too cliched but I was wanting to see her five minutes later, fumbling for her discount card at the check out, maybe rushing so hastily that she dumps her purse, then, then only to walk out the automatic doors to be blasted by a Ford F150 King Ranch pick-up with an eagle of prey camoflauged in the red & white stripes of our flag on the rear window. Something cruel and mean and indicitive of shitty people like that who just plain suck.

I loved the way you wrote it. And, if its true, that beotch ought to have laid awake that night.

Jozee said...

I'm sure she didn't give it another thought. She just wonders why her luck is always so bad.

The other people said silent thank yous over and over in their heads to you.