Random acts of meanness
Now don’t get me wrong – it’s often that I take a hard long look at myself and find myself lacking in compassion and tender feelings for my fellow men. (And women. And intersex persons. And everyone else. Let’s not go there.) My cynicism gets the best of me – so much so that I tend to read Wordsworth’s “No – man is dear to man” line without the dash. And yet. And yet.
The day before yesterday, as I was settling in for the ride from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie, getting all snuggly in the window seat with the view to the Hudson river, this elderly couple sat down to me. She, looking down at me sternly, addressed me in a nasal voice, conveying by the stressed “excuse me” that she wanted me to make myself as small as humanly possible. I complied, and mentally cursed the designers of the narrow, uncomfortable commuter train benches. But they were soon cosy enough – she, elbows spread widely, leafing through a tourist guide, and him, a bemused white-haired fellow, twiddling his thumbs in appropriate silence. I shortly thereafter became engrossed in my book, throwing the occasional look out the window to the expanse of silvery water languishing under threatening clouds.
About ten minutes into our ride, a young girl plonked herself on the bench parallel to ours and, hiding behind a waterfall of chestnutty hair, continued a conversation on the phone that had obviously started a while ago. So, in media res then, we get that the girl is very distressed. How do we get this? Well, she is actually crying. Hiccups and all. Piecing things together from her protestations to her friend at the other end of the line, I gathered she had been denied a coaching opportunity (reason unknown) and she was taking this very badly. “I don’t understand” and “He doesn’t understand” and “My life is ruined” were repeated at regular intervals, along with a few imaginative “wtf”s. And a lot of sobbing. And I do mean a lot. Now, people constantly being noisy near me on a train / plane / donkey ride is something I would get annoyed by. Or blog about. Or both. But I couldn’t really – how can you get pissed off at someone pouring their heart (and all their tears) out like that? I wanted to pat her on the head and say it will be better. I wanted to offer her a handkerchief. I wanted her to stop crying. As it turned out, so did my neighbours.
“I can’t believe it” snickered my female neighbour in a vinegary voice. She made some “tut-tut” noises of disapproval, and shuffled her feet in a disapproving manner. I give her the tiniest smile of understanding and commiseration, and at this she feels encouraged enough to remark: “She’s been crying this whole time. It’s ridiculous. She’s got nothing to cry about. It’s all just drama. Children having cancer, that’s serious, that’s a reason to cry about! She should just get over herself!” I do a mental double take, a bit like someone caught on the lake ice-fishing on the first day of thawing. What? What do children with cancer have to do with it? I mean, yes, that’s tragic, of course, I don’t mean to suggest differently. But are we really only allowed to cry at things like that, regardless what happens to us in our lives? Now that would be sad. I shake my head, and try a diplomatic rebuke: “Well, it’s all relative…” My neighbour snorts in disdain: “Obviously.” She then (mercifully) stops talking to me, but proceeds to do the passive-agressive thing by commenting non-stop with her husband about the insufferable girl. Who, it must be said, did spend at least an hour on the phone doing more of the above. No dead battery, no tunnels, no drying up of tearducts. In the meantime, my neighbours got so worked up – she vitriolically goading her heeding partner – that he went away to seek a conductor as “something had to change, one way or another.” I never got to know what – as the conductor never did come, and they got off a few stops later. After which the girl continued her conversation, in a perfectly normal, calmed voice.
The exchange I witnessed yesterday was not much better. At my university cafeteria, we have an all-you-can eat system. As I was queueing for my favourite, chargrilled chicken, near the grill station, the lady preparing the food addressed the boy standing in line behind me: “What do you want?” The gangly youth holding a plate piled high with an assortment of dishes replied in a lazy stammer: “I … uhm… could I get another piece of chicken?” The lady gave him an icy look, and retorted: “But I’ve just given you two pieces.” The youth shifted his weight from one foot to another. “Well… could I get another one?” “You’ve just gotten two. You may want to go and come again to order some more later.” she snapped at him. Now, remember, this is an all you can eat. And there was no shortage of chicken breasts – I could see them all neatly aligned on the grill, and ready. And there were just two people in the queue – me and him. And I sure as heck didn’t want 15 chicken breasts – not that anyone had asked me. I just could not understand this, for the life of me.
The young man skulked away, defeated. And proceeded to eye the unattractive-looking rice at the next station. “Well…” I venture “maybe he was just really, really hungry.” The lady notices me for the first time. “You know what?” she barks at me in her strict tone, and I quiver inside, expecting that because of my foolishmess my own chicken portion is nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. “… maybe … you’re right. Maybe he is really hungry” she concedes in a softer tone, and picks up a piece of chicken, moves along the counter and calls out “Young man! young man! here, have another piece” The youth looks startled, and mumbles his thanks, and I smile a bit inwardly.