What is it about the oblique kindness of strangers in a city that is otherwise so straightforward, so full-on committed, to its aggressions?
Tonight I went to a massive grocery store. I was shopping for the week ahead. I’m on a tight budget, so I skip half the things I love and would live by if I could (a comely Prince de Claverolle cheese, august offerings of organic apples in the ruddy pride of their prime) and steer toward the off-color and slightly beaten versions of things that I like and can live with (currents in bulk, a rendering of cous cous that was ever so slightly finer than its neighbor on the dispensary wall, same price).
The aisles were impossible with carts and shuffling, all parkas and mufflers and gruff-stuff attitude even as New York remains entrenched in this warm pocket of unusual fall weather. People are dressed, already, for the worst and it takes up space, you see.
Jostling and cavorting past this family, around that stern-faced woman inexplicably in spats, now past a man who was brazenly, so brazenly, eating from the dried nuts bin from which the customer is meant just to take his or her desired amount, secure said amount in one of the millions of waiting plastic bags, weigh it, affix the price sticker, and be on his merry way. At no point or juncture hangs a sign that reads, “Oh come all ye faithful, stick ye grubby-ass nasty-punk hands into our many fine bins and feed freely from the largess of our trust.” No.
So I just about earned a PhD tonight in the wiles and ways of that price sticker-pumping machine because, admittedly, I felt a sudden and yet not un-foreign impulse to police the free-loaders even as everyone swore it was all either beneath or beyond them to work the damn machine and thus I, too, was reminded of that one and true core fact, a fact my good Aunt Ann has been repeating through her many glorious decades at the helm and in the realm of her independent bookstore: The customer cannot be trusted.
Well. Anyway. Then I got to the baked goods section.
Me: “Hello, may I please have a baguette from here, the lower shelf. How much is that?”
Staff member: “Those loaves are all one forty-five each, love.”
I have long adored the lovely work of inventing and depositing sweet nicknames on the heads and ears of all who cross my path. I don’t often hear it back, least of all initiated. Who cares? My students are all, to me, “my dear,” “sweet one” “buttercup” “dream boat” “ladybug” “lady doodle” or “doodlebugs” in the event of a mixed-gender situation. It’s more fun that way.
I am rare to roll out “love”, and rarer still to hear it. But this fine baker, in all the pressed glory of her early evening whites and professionalism, did just that. It was, to my mind, like the sudden engagement of an affectionate arms race. I could not and would not let this gracious stand-off go without notice and so I fired back with good aim and only the slightest reduction in the stakes:
Me (startled): “Oh. Well, thank you. Yes, I’ll take one.” Pause. “Doll.”
It’s my go-to, doll. So lovely and steeped, as it is, in a vintage air of the 1920s. I am not in the habit of calling the baker “doll” but nor, critically, am I now, nor have I ever been, against it. Being addressed, from the get-out, as “love” just levels all possible assumptions and puts me on a war footing of trust and affection.
The woman could have then slavered and spit all over my loaf, adored it with all her funk and bad intentions, and I likely would have regarded both it and her the same—lovely. Thank you. How disarming the simple act of choosing to speak kindly, to use words of connection and affection in, arguably, our least likely of places: just here, the baker’s counter.
Take the good with the bad, for I then felt somewhat ready to propose to the MTA conductor who cast a kindly glance on my subway ride home. And, truth be told, arguments could be made and tongues wagged both high and loud against the seeming abuse of our language, the displacement of context that otherwise robs our strongest words of their greatest meaning. Please. Put all your ballyhoo away. Our time together—all of us—is entirely too limited. Do you realize it is already Thursday? That it’s nearly March? That it’s going to be 2020 in, like, 5 minutes? And that we are all, in so many ways, living almost entirely in the past? Each of us, in his or her own past.
Stop it. Love is the alarm clock. Let’s use it and speak it and profess adoration to the baker and dear reverence to our trusted MTA conductor who transports us, all of us, to the last, safely home again. How total the effect of this one word, and how great its value in the pondering, for she is powerful, the most powerful in all this English language: