Cathartic Introspection at 3:18PM
It's always interesting when we see an object or person juxtaposed into a unfamiliar situation: a seagull sixty miles inland, a rusted Ford LTD in an affluent neighborhood, a attractive woman alone in a seedy bar sipping Pabst, or the show of capitalism of the bohemians at the Wicker Park craft show that surrounds me as I write this.
That's why it struck me to see the old woman in line in front of me in the supermarket. I see her almost every morning on the train. We always end up in the same car towards the front. She gives me the same "looking down her nose" look at me every day. Maybe it's my long hair, I think, Or maybe she's tired of seeing me.
We both get off at the same stop, Clark Street and Lake. I always rush past her, probably brushing up against her bony shoulders once or twice. She takes the elevator and I take the escalator. I try and get ahead of her so I'm not stuck in the processional that seems to automatically form behind her. Thousands of us flow out of the cattle cars that whisk us away from our lives to our places of employment, and she is just a slow moving obstacle, blocking the American dream of "Work hard and you can make it, by God, you can be someone!" You see, she always walks, or should I say shuffles, very slowly. I've learned that kind of movement doesn't play well with the hurried crowd pouring out of the Blue Line subway. All's fair in love, war, and trying to get to your connecting train at 6:50AM, I've discovered. So I don't feel too bad for brushing past her; she should be used to it by now.
So here we are, together in line at Jewell on a Saturday afternoon. Again, I was joining her, both of us on the way to a destination, with a singular purpose. What was she buying? I peered over those same bony shoulders to see what was in her basket and noticed three packages of generic instant cocoa, a quart of soymilk, and a pair of white socks. She turned at looked at me and I got the same look down the long range of bone that was once a nose. I wonder if she recognizes me? I thought. I was wearing a hat after all. She glanced into my basket to discover it full of fresh vegetables, chicken, organic corn chips, and a six-pack of Red Hook IPA. It was going to be a good dinner tonight.
What kind of person gets cocoa, soy milk, and ankle socks in the same trip to the store? I wondered. She was no doubt questioning my decision to purchase organic chips instead of the store brand. Hey, it's my money. Deal with it.
She hobbles slowly in line, putting her items on the counter and brushes into me as she sets her plastic basket on the floor. Payback, I guess. She burrows around in her coin purse looking for the correct change, then gives up looking for the nickel in a sea of dirty pennies. She stares blankly at the clerk as he tells her that the machine at the end of the counter will automatically dispense her change. Ah, the wonders of modern technology! Now the uneducated no longer have to make change. She grabs her thirteen cents and meanders home. She must live alone since she doesn't have a wedding ring on. She looks isolated, aged, and discontent with whatever hand that life dealt her.
So what's the point to this three-minute observation I made while in line at the grocery store? I started wondering what she thought of me. Why does she look at me the way she does? More importantly, what do others see when I'm out of my element?
I work long hours at a corporate job, a prisoner in my cube. The good of the company affects my every decision. I am professional, honest, and do my job quite well. There have been many instances while interviewing candidates that I make a decision that will affect their lives, even though we have never met. I have sent many people back to the unemployment office to testify to a faceless swine of government efficiency, to beg for one more week of benefits, when I could've sent that person home to celebrate their new job with their family and friends. So what would my stuffy co-workers think if they saw me now? Camped up against a tree with a notebook propped on my ripped jeans and an anti-corporate America T-shirt on? An opposite portrait of the character I play Monday through Friday. How about when I'm lying naked in bed with a girl I hardly know, high on Mexican hash that we bought earlier that night? Or when I was running from the police at an anti-war rally on Lake Shore Drive? Or when I sit alone in my apartment, crying, wishing for a second chance at a lost love? What would my Protestant family think if they knew I spend my Sunday mornings in a Buddhist temple, chanting away as the incense permeates my skin and the spirit of Siddhartha surrounds me? Do my eyes truly convey the life that I have lived? The pain, the happiness, and the 27 years I have spent becoming me?
I guess I'm no different than the woman in the supermarket. I am a picture within a landscape, within a telescopic view from the heavens. I lead one life, then another. But does anyone really care? Do they take me as who I am, not caring what's beneath the surface? What do others see when the sun is at my back?
Maybe I'll take the time to greet the woman on the train when I see her next. Probably not though. Our private selves are our own, for those privileged few to discover.
"I am 27 years old and live in Chicago. I currently work a job that stifles creativity, so I have begun writing again to help balance my life." E-mail: ml_hardman[at]hotmail.com.