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?"
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.
"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.
"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.