Thursday, January 8, 2009

The way we were.


Sometimes I wonder if I have changed much over the past, say, fifty years. Beyond the obvious, I mean. Sure, I’ve learned a lot and had as many personally defining experiences as I’ve had heartbeats. I just wonder if I am essentially the same person I was as a child, a teenager; a 20-30-40 something.

Do we really change over time or do our personalities simply undergo the same sort of superficial aging that our bodies do?

I’m always looking at total strangers and trying to imagine them as children. Transients for example, the people we used to call “bums.” When you see a dirty man in tattered clothing drinking from a paper bag or pushing a shopping cart do you ever wonder what series of misfortunes took him where he seems to be? I say seems to be because none of us can fairly judge the lives of others but still, it seems clear that this downtrodden man is not the current visage of a once happy, fresh-faced child. Surely somebody once loved him. Maybe somebody still does.

What happened?

The other day I was in line at the supermarket and the woman in front of me was taking forever getting through the process. The checker had finished totaling the woman’s modest basket of products but now the customer was digging slowly through the contents of her purse looking for coupons. She found plenty but apparently not the ones she needed. As we all waited patiently the checker sent the bag-boy off to find the manager who then began to search through his office for the correct coupons. Meanwhile, the lady in front of me seemed oblivious to the growing line of increasingly irritated people behind her.

I was fine. I was in no hurry and found it kind of funny. I had a small wager going within myself that once the coupon crisis was solved, then and only then, the woman would begin looking for her checkbook and spend another five minutes writing the check, entering it into her records and deducting it from her balance. She might even pull out a handheld computer.

The oblivious are truly oblivious.

Meanwhile, the man behind me was commenting on the procedure.

“Can we get this thing going?”

“Jesus Christ, is everybody on strike here?”

“What the hell’s taking so long?”

He crabbed a new sentence approximately every thirty seconds. None of us responded but the checker looked at me and slyly rolled her eyes. I smiled. The oblivious woman saw and heard nothing.

At some point in all of this I began to wonder why this man in his sixties or seventies was so grouchy. Sure, he had only two items and had been waiting, as I had, for an inordinately long time to get through the checkout but it was a pleasant day. I couldn’t imagine that he needed to get somewhere with a bag of potatoes within the next five or ten minutes. Probably he was just going home to park himself in front of the TV and crab at his wife while she fixed his dinner.

How’d he get like that? And if I, a perfect stranger, thought he was being an ass what must his own family and friends, assuming he has any, think of him? What lovely part of his happy, gentle nature am I not seeing? Did he even have another side to him?

Not that it’s any of my business, of course. But, keeping my thoughts to myself I worked the process through to a logical conclusion.

What nice things would people find to say about this man at his funeral? They’d probably say things like, “He was strong in his convictions,” and, “He never backed down.”

I could be completely wrong, of course. I may well have just seen an unflattering moment in the life of the most wonderful husband, father and grandfather who ever walked the earth. But it did remind me that the way we treat others has eternal consequences. We make ripples.

I want to be remembered smiling, tolerant, patient, wise and goofy. I should start working on that memory right now.

Oh, and I was right about the checkbook.

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