I almost got beaten up at the C-Town yesterday. I’m trying my best to convince myself that it was my fault.
The C-Town’s narrow aisles were thronged with folks stocking up for their Easter feasts. I needed a few things for some Twice-Cooked Pork I was testing out for the next meeting of my Cookbook Club. As I walked across 9th Street from my apartment, I girded myself for the obstacle course that lay ahead: people moving at all speeds and stopping for no reason in front of foods I find disgusting; precious, precious Slope Spawn given charge of the cart; and the C-Town’s insistence on stacking things in the aisles proper. I was in a good mood. I had just finished a nice walk around the neighborhood and had a great phone conversation with my sister despite her infuriating habit of not watching The Americans in a timely manner so we have something to talk about.
I find that when the C-Town is crowded like that, all I can do is smile. I glide thru the masses, knowing exactly where everything I need is.
“Hwooop!” [done with a kind of evasive twirl]
Repeat five or six times, and I’m in the final aisle, smiling because they finally have sliced Havarti. I make my way toward the 10-or-15-Items-or-Less lane –it all depends on which sign you follow. But before I can get there I have to make it past the final series of bottlenecks: a ginormous Pepsi end-cap, the ice cream freezer of indecision, an Aztec pyramid of that toilet paper those cartoon bears use, a drink cooler of brightly colored impulse buys, and finally a 90-degree left turn immediately into the express lane.
Throughout this last chicane, I am behind a gentleman and his wife, pushing a toddler in a stroller. It is slow going, but the express lanes are not that bad. In an unusual twist, it’s the main lanes that are choked. Because this is New York, the area in front of the registers is random mess of empty carts, stacks of baskets, and shoppers. The small family gets in the express lane in front of me. Now, it should be pointed out that the C-Town’s express lane involves two registers, one behind the other. If register #2 opens up, and the next customer cannot squeeze between the customer at #1 and a large structural column encased with Italian cookies in clear plastic boxes, then they go around the column. This is understood by all.
Needless to say, when the far register finally opens up, the family doesn’t budge. An old lady and her old lady cart are blocking the way. The entire line steps back a few to let the family go around the column. They don’t budge. In my best PardonSorryExcuseMe voice I point out that the far register is open. I step back another step. The woman pivots around and hisses, “It’s blocked that way!” The giant cookie column has blocked my view. I smile and say, “Oh, couldn’t see from this angle. Sorry.”
Then the man lays into me. “What the FUCK am I supposed to do? Crawl over that?” He flicks his left hand towards the old woman bending over her cart like he’s gesturing to a particularly nasty carpet stain. He grows from around 6-1 to 6-3, and I can now tell he played some sport in high school, which I backstory he contends was the best time of his life.
This is unexpected. I stammer, “Sorry I upset you so much.” He huffs and shakes his head, muttering something I can barely understand, though I am sure the last syllable is “hole.” I stand up a little straighter. “Why are you cussing at me?”
“Cuz you’re an asshole.”
“Oh. Seriously there’s no need to cuss. I couldn’t see around the column. Sorry.”
“Why are you cussing at me?”
“Cuz you’re an asshole.”
“Oh……” [and here’s where I may have escalated the encounter] “Why are you cussing at me?”
“Cuz you’re an asshole.” Real clenchy.
Maybe my eyes widened. Maybe the corners of my mouth turned up a smidge. “Why are you cussing at me?”
The wife pleads, “Please let it go.” It is not apparent to whom this was directed. Nontheless, “Cuz you’re an asshole.”
I’m sure I greet this refrain with a small conductor-ish flourish and a nod, because, as we all know by this point, I am an asshole. “Why are you cussing at me?” Dude, I can do this all day. I took improv! I’m trained in beating a dead horse! A crowd is gathering.
Finally, the old lady partially extracts herself from her old lady cart. The gentleman forces his way around her, swinging his basket [in both senses of the word] over her head. Unfortunately the wife cannot make it through because of the little pitcher with big ears in the stroller. She’s staring at me. I can’t let a pregnant pause like that go without ¡WORDS! so I say, “That was completely uncalled for.” All that was missing from that sentence was an “oh myyy” and Aunt Pittypat’s smelling salts. Continuing the family tradition, she returns, “You’re a fucking asshole. Let. It. Go.”
One of the several hundred [thousand] hard and fast rules I have in life is that you don’t cuss around the little ones. You just don’t. “Nice. And at Easter, too!” We are outraged, just outraged! “Happy Easter to you and yours!” I conclude. The old lady’s bags are finally off the belt, so I turn and begin taking my items out of the basket, apologizing profusely to the checker.
From over at the far register, and behind the safe cover of an old lady and her cart, comes a loud “I am going to fuck you up when we get outside!” I turn, “Hwat?! Why are you threatening me now with… with violence?” Oh myyyyy, not violence!
As if on cue, the wife adds, “Asshole.”
“What did I do to you? I don’t get it!”
“I’m gonna follow you and kick your ass, asshole!” yells the husband. I am now scared in that middle-school way where you wonder if the beating is going to go down out back of the gym during lunch or after school in the bus driveway. Or in that middle-aged way where you wonder if the beating is going to come into the entryway of your apartment, which conveniently is visible just over his shoulder. I mutter to the clerk, “It’s like third grade.” In situations like this, I am discovering that it’s best to say what you want to say out loud.
“What?” screeches the wife. “What did you call me?” For the life of me, I cannot figure out what sounds close to “third grade.” Whore slide?
“What!?! Oh man, I am going to fuck you up,” he shouts. Now I’m legitimately worried. I don’t know what to do. So I decide to tell on him. “Can someone get the manager?”
“Awww, come on!” says the wife.
“Please. Someone get the manager! I need the manager!” I’m gonna tell, and then you’ll see!
The manager comes over. He doesn’t need this. His store is already close to spinning out of control. Both kinds of Easter are falling on the same day this year. He doesn’t say anything. I blurt, “This guy is threatening to beat me up.”
“I don’t feel safe here!” Sometimes teachers would walk you to the bus if they felt there was enough of a certifiable threat.
This is not one of those times. The husband growls and shakes his head, “Oh man…” I make a pleading face to the manager. Silence. This isn’t the teacher who helps you; this is the teacher who doesn’t get paid for this kind of shit. Or they don’t care. Or they like the other guy better because, look at him, who wouldn’t? He’s got a wife and kid and plays organized sports. You’re just giving them what they want. Why are you such a tempting target? Why won’t you shut up about it? Why are you such a little asshole?
For some reason, I don’t miss a beat during the actual grocery transaction. I still know when to say Debit or Credit. But all I can hear is the silence from the manager. Am I in the wrong? Is this like the time I yelled at that girl on the F Train for leaning against the pole? Unwarranted, because, after all, the train was almost empty. No, warranted because he cussed at you when you were just being helpful. Yes, you’re a net positive to the world.
But…. you did have that panic attack last night at the Eagle. You can’t be trusted. Your take on events is always skewed. Everyone was having a good time being social, being productive, smiling correctly. It was pleasant. One should enjoy himself. If you could only get out of your head long enough to carry on a conversation over loud music and the one go-go “bear” in Christendom who actually dances, not just shuffles his feet, you might actually enjoy yourself. And everyone is staring at you but not letting on that they notice you. So your brain decides it’s time for you to leave. Your friend Greg can’t understand why you’re leaving, but he hugs you goodbye anyways. And the way you breathlessly asked for your jacket from your friend Damian who was DJ-ing? What was that? Didn’t he give you the same look that the manager’s giving you now? And that look had nothing to do with the fact that he was cuing up songs when you barged your too-fat self into the DJ booth rasping incoherently about your jacket. No, your take on events is accurate, so it’s obvious that Damian is mad at you because you’re pulling this shit again and it’s getting old. That’s why he hasn’t returned your any of your IM’s inviting him to tonight’s Twice-Cooked Pork. You’ve gone to the crazy well one too many times. Yes, your logical brain knows that he’s stuck with you as a good friend for the better part of ten years, but everyone has his limits, and you’ve reached his.
Same with the manager’s silence. He’s sick of you, too. Granted he’s seen you on a pretty much daily basis ever since you moved in across the street two years ago. He’s never seen you upset before, but rest assured that now you look just like every other crazy person he comes in contact with. Next week, you’ll be yelling about the price of peas. You have to be the crazy one, the one in the wrong. The guy has a wife and kid. You have panic attacks. And a cat. You’re too sarcastic. Why do you choose to rile people up? It’s a choice, you know. Maybe you didn’t keep that really good zinger to yourself? When he threatened to fuck you up, you were going to turn to the wife and say, “Nice. He suck your dick with that mouth?” That would’ve been satisfying. But what if you actually said it? You know that the day after a bad panic attack you’re no good to anybody. Didn’t it take you hours to boil the pork belly for tonight because you’re, at best, addled the day after? It’s not beyond you to instantaneously edit and re-edit you actions seconds after they happen. You could be lying now.
Maybe I wasn’t coming across as helpful when I pointed out the open register. You know your voice sometimes fails to convey the correct emotion. Don’t you have that acquaintance who needs to point out every time he sees you how your lack of affect creeps him out? You told him once very seriously that your meds sometimes flatten your voice, especially in stressful situations, but it just registered to him as a joke because sometimes lack of affect is funny. For all I know, this guy here really thinks I’m an asshole. And I should agree because I don’t want to be an asshole about this.
The manager walks away. I get my receipt, and walk out with my stuff. I look down because I don’t want to know if people are looking at me. I walk past the manager. Maybe I mutter something about not feeling safe –I’m not sure. All I can focus on is getting to my apartment, which is at the end of twisty tunnel across the street. I assume I checked for traffic before I crossed 9th Street. I’m not sure. Not that it matters. Yet, it is nice not to get hit by a car. I can’t argue.
I glance back over to the C-Town before turning towards my building’s door. I don’t see him. Once I’m behind the door, I peer through the cheap Plexiglas diamond to make sure I haven’t been followed. I exhale and do a relaxation technique. I exhale again.
You know, you really couldn’t see around that column.