Hello In There: A New York Story

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There is a certain nightmare that all New Yorkers have, and yesterday afternoon it came true for me. I’m not proud of it. Truth be told, I’d rather not talk about it. But I’ll tell the story on myself as a cautionary tale for the rest of you–whether or not you happen to live in New York City.


Edward Munch: “The Scream”

We’ve all been there: We go to the supermarket, fill our carts, and go up to get on line at one of the checkout counters. We gauge the best checker and the shortest line and gravitate toward that one, hoping for the best. But once in a while we make a bad decision: The shortest of the three lines is the shortest for a reason.

And there she is–that fluttery, helpless, homely, fiftyish lady who has planted herself at the checkout and shows no signs of moving any time soon. She’s dressed like a much younger woman–a cloche hat with a pompom, a long scarf, a wool coat, black leggings, and white knitted kneepads–and she speaks in a loud, faux-British accent that sounds like a 12-year-old American girl in a school production of My Fair Lady. In sum, she is not desperately attractive. She’s asking the clerk for things she couldn’t find, so other clerks are despatched to find them in various parts of the store–a certain brand of cat food, a can opener, a head of lettuce. Then she has a long convy with the checker about prices, and whether the items are on sale this week. Then she changes her mind and sends the clerks off to get other things. Then she can’t find her credit card or her checkbook. Then she gets out her change purse and starts counting out change. Then she decides she doesn’t really want the can opener, she wants a different can opener…

Meanwhile, the line I joined when there was only one woman behind her has grown. I turn around to find seven people behind me. The other two checkouts are going like freight trains–checking, bagging, and spitting out customers a mile a minute. Now the “British” woman wants separate bags for various things, and delivery to her home. And maybe she won’t take that can opener, after all…

I look behind me again: eleven people. Everyone’s fidgeting and muttering. One angry woman changes lines. I hear the words “looney tunes” from another woman. And here’s the thing: I know the woman who’s holding up the line. I don’t know her name, but I remember being stuck behind her several times in the past, in this supermarket and in the CVS drugstore. And once in Gourmet Garage across the street, I witnessed another customer have a total meltdown and call her every name in the book for holding up the line and ordering all the clerks around. She turned on the shouter, all indignant rage, and shouted right back. So imagine my surprise yesterday when I became the angry customer having the meltdown. I finally had my Edward Munch Moment–I suddenly became that little guy in his painting, The Scream.

Oh yes, I did. I took the Lord’s name in vain. I used the “f” word. I even called her the “a” word. I just started screaming, right there in the supermarket. And Ms. Passive/Aggressive Bossypants turned on me and started shouting right back in her totally fake British accent. “You can’t call me an (a-word)!” she cried. “That’s ABUSE!” My reply: “Go (f-word) yourself, you crazy (b-word)!” She glared at me, shouted “YOU’RE the only (a-word) here!!!”, snatched her purse up off the counter and marched out of the store.

Dead silence. I turned to look at the long line behind me, and every single one of those people was staring at the floor, or at the produce section, or anywhere but at me. I had to stand there for a while–the woman ahead of me had to be checked out. The manager (a friend, as I’ve been shopping there for twenty years) frowned at me but said nothing. The checker now had the giggles–he couldn’t seem to stop himself. But he wouldn’t make eye contact with me as he silently checked me and I paid. Nobody wanted to say anything to me or even look at me. Why?

Bette Midler

Bette Midler: “Hello In There”

Because it could have been any one of them, and they all knew it. That’s the New York nightmare: We’re going to find ourselves in that situation, and instead of politely biting our tongues we’re going to go ballistic. I’d had a bad day–frustration with my new writing project, the onset of a cold, a mix-up involving my bank account–but that’s no excuse. With my outburst, they’d all just seen their worst fear realized.

As for the Crazy Lady, well, I shouldn’t have shouted at her. She clearly suffers from Passive/Aggressive Disorder, she probably lives alone in a rent-controlled apartment with a dozen cats, and the trip to the supermarket is her only human contact for the day. I’m not the first to shout at her, and I won’t be the last, but that doesn’t make it right. Bette Midler sings a song about it, Hello In There, in which she refers to these women as “the fried egg ladies,” the ones who wander the streets of New York like circus freaks. Everyone looks at them as though they have a big fried egg on their forehead, and then we all look away. In the song, Bette advises us to be compassionate, to reach out, to say hello. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t. I did the other thing. It didn’t make me feel better, not even for one minute. It made me feel worse, petty and vulgar and cruel. And deeply, profoundly embarrassed. When we lose our patience, we lose our dignity.

Learn from my mistake.

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