When I was kid I was terrified of teenagers. This was mostly because I’d never actually met one; my only exposure being the hoodlums who hung out in packs at Freedom Park and mocked little guys like me as we tried to jump on or off the whirling merry-go-round. I was a very sensitive girl (still am) and I’d burst into tears any time one of those boys laughed at me as I brushed off the dirt of another failed dismount.
My mother would cluck her tongue, tell me I needed tougher skin, and remind me for the thousandth time that the problem wasn’t me, but that “those kids clearly weren’t raised right.”
“Kind people don’t make fun of others,” she’d say.
“Well bred people don’t pick on others, especially those weaker than themselves,” she’d say.
Sometimes she was succinct: “Rude is trashy.”
So, at six, there were a few things I knew for sure: teenagers were rude, grown-ups liked to wash their cars, and old people smelled like Vicks, but carried Worther’s in their pockets.
I gotta be honest. Three decades later and I’m still a little afraid of teenagers. But not because they’ve capitalized the market on rudeness. It’s because I was one once and it wasn’t pretty. Call it PTSD if you will. As far as rudeness goes, I think grown-ups and old people are giving the most poorly raised teenagers a run for their money these days.
We scream out our car windows in traffic. We make and watch TV shows where real people are ridiculed in front of a live audience. We have entire radio programs dedicated to belittling and demeaning people who disagree with us. We seem unable to have the most basic political debates without resorting to name-calling.
This has been bothering me for quite a while, but a recent experience at the grocery store really hammered it home.
Right before Christmas I stopped by Aldi on my way to meet some friends. I stood in line with my crackers and cheese, grateful that the two folks in front of me had similarly small baskets. There was a white couple in their mid-sixties checking out with their Christmas ham and a couple other items. As the teenage cashier ran their items through the scanner she offered them a $3 coupon. Immediately in front of me was a tall, thin, middle aged black woman. She was loading a bag of oranges and a few boxes of cereal onto the conveyor, but she kept having to stop and duck her head into her open coat to cough.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “it stinks to be sick at Christmas.”
“It’s just this dry cough. Of course I came to store without my candies,” she smiled and coughed again.
Right about then, the cashier gave the older couple their total ($24.16) and the man opened his wallet. It was full of cash. He looked down into the full wallet and then back up at the cashier feigning bewilderment.
“Oh no. I left my food stamp card at home.”
The cashier stared blankly at him.
“Well, what am I going to do?” he demanded.
Now, maybe it’s because I had a bird’s-eye view of his wallet, or because I’d never before heard someone draw attention to the fact that they use food stamps, but I knew immediately what was going on. More than those two things though, I suspect it was the familiar set of the man’s jaw, the smile-sneer common to all bullies, that told me that he was gearing up and giddy about the possibility of asserting his superiority. As we say around here, he was just poking fun. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
The woman in front of me smiled at him and said, “Well, sir, you could use mine.”
The man turned full round, looked her up and down, and said “I bet you do have one.”
I felt my jaw unhinge.
The woman threw her head back, laughing, and said to the world in general, “I’m not sure that was a compliment.” She turned towards me. “Am I right?” she hooted, and threw up her hand for a high five.
I met her hand mid-air, as much out of awe, as out of a total lack of other options. It was the clap heard round the Aldi.
The man turned back to the cashier (poor thing looked like someone was trying to hand her a snake in church) and said, “I worked three jobs so other people could have food stamps.” He slapped twenty-five bucks down on the counter. The cashier fumbled to make his change.
The woman coughed into her coat again, stood up, faced the man squarely, and said, “I’d like to correct you on something, sir. I worked full-time, and over-time for twenty-eight years. I’ve been on dialysis for five now. I’m just getting back what I paid in.”
The man deflated a bit. “Oh, well, I’m… sorry to hear that.” He met his wife, in her Christmas sweater, at the bagging counter and they walked out.
The woman in front of me checked out, chuckling and shaking her head, “Some people,” she said.
“Just think,” I said, “all those jobs, and he still never learned to be polite.”
As we left the store, more or less together, I wanted to grab that woman and hug her. I wanted to tell her how much I admired her generosity. Not just for offering to buy a stranger’s Christmas dinner, but for modeling grace under fire. It would have been so easy to let that situation turn even uglier. She could’ve hauled off and hit him. He certainly deserved it. I, for one, was rooting for it.
I wanted to congratulate her courageousness. She could have taken her moral beating and slunk off like a wounded dog. I might’ve done that. But she stood her ground, she told her truth, and she laughed that incredible laugh.
I wanted to hold her face and say, “I am so sorry. I’m sorry that man was rude to you. I’m sorry that you seem so accustomed to rudeness that you can appear unfazed by it. I know you aren’t unfazed. I’m sorry that we live in a culture where people, grown people, would think, even for a second, that a grocery store line is an appropriate place to declare their politics, spew their anger, draw their lines of divisiveness. I’m sorry for whatever it is about me (The color of my skin? The cut of my coat?) that made that man think I was his target audience. But you know what? It isn’t me. And it isn’t you, either. It’s just he clearly wasn’t raised right. Rude is trashy. And you, my new friend, are anything but trashy, no matter what some asshole at Aldi tries to imply.”
But I didn’t. I was still reeling. So instead I said, “Hang in there, sister. Have a merry Christmas. Don’t forget those candies.”
She laughed again. “You know it.”