Went grocery shopping today. Not sure why. I’m self-employed and work on the weekends. I could shop anytime during the week when the stores are empty. But for some reason, I choose to do things like go grocery shopping at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon and trek into SoHo at 1:3-pm on the first warm day of the Spring.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, I was checking out in an incredibly long line and obviously annoyed as all hell. The experience reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s recent commencement speech at Kenyon University (worth reading, by the way):
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
At this point, a woman behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said “I’m just going to leave this basket here and do some more shopping. Can you watch it and my place in line?” The basket had 2 pints of fro-yo in it. “Sure” I nodded.
Ten seconds later another woman approached. “I’m just going to leave this quart of half-and-half here. Can you watch it and my place in line?”
“Sure,” I say, “but there is another woman who left her fro-yo. Just FYI.”
“Well, is she coming back?”
“I assume so.” Wallace is replaying in my ears.
The second woman leaves. About 30 seconds later, both women converge on the line at the same time. The rightful first woman gets in line first. The second woman wastes no time: “Um, excuse me, that’s my half-and-half!”
The first woman ignored her and wheeled around to address me “I thought you agreed to watch my space in line??!!!”
“Umm… yeah, she was just resting her half and half. I think she knows she’s behind you.”
In a fantastic display of bitter sweet kindness, the first woman replied “Look, if it’s that important to you, why don’t you just cut in front of me.”
At this point, the next part of Wallace’s speech came back to me:
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
But I realized something more. The problem was suddenly blindingly obvious and the solution crystal clear.
Neither of these women spent 45 minutes this morning listening to Everybody Loves Magical Trevor on repeat! THAT must be why they are cranky. Maybe if I sing the song to everyone in line, they will all cheer up!
At which point I busted out the first verse of the Magical Trevor song and for that brief moment, neither of these women were the most annoying people in the line.
UPDATE: It’s now my ringtone.