Friday, October 5, 2007


Being a human, living in a society filled with other people, you tend to have quirky interactions on occasion. There’s that guy on the bus that tries to crowbar his way into other people’s conversations, the lecherous maintenance man on the elevator that wants to give you a dollar for two-day-old catered coffee, or the disheveled old man that tells you to smile and asks if he can have the uneaten part of your hamburger to feed to his dogs at home.

We’ve all got stories like this. It’s just a part of living in a small space with a lot of unique people.

Last night at the grocery store, I was puzzling over the difference between the frozen shrimp in the red bag versus those in the purple bag (I am still stumped as to the actual difference). A man my father’s age comes up behind me, leans in over my left shoulder and exclaims, “MMMM! Those shrimp sure do smell GOOD, don’t they?” (Usually I have some sort of bland, noncommittal response for oddballs, but I think I just turned and looked at this guy in disgust and disbelief.) He went on to make the same comment to the woman stocking the seafood case off to my left—his tone implied that he was just doing it to normalize his statement (good luck!).

I’m not sure why it is that things like that still surprise me. I grew up within striking distance of a very “normal” suburban town, but we had our collection of hayseeds and oddballs—I suppose the difference is that most of them stuck to themselves out on their fortified acreage. I imagine you just have a higher likelihood of running into unusual people when you live in a city. The frequency of your casual interactions increases, and thus the frequency of those that stand out from the rest.

I find myself wondering, though, how often I’ve been the strange one that stands out from the general public. I can think of several times when I’ve said something, thinking it was a completely normal comment or response, and someone’s either misheard me or given me the bland “Ahhh…” sort of reply. I wonder what the girl thought when, passing her on my bike, I yelled “Hey! I like your shoes!” (she was biking in red, platform heels, and I thought that was awesome of her). What did the check-out guy at Powell’s think when I said that “Yes-I’d-like-a-bag-today-but-ONLY-because-it’s-pouring-rain.” He gave me one of those funny looks. Maybe I mumbled?

When I was working in a customer service job, interacting with strangers in a friendly, pleasant way was routine. I knew how to do it, I was in a rhythm. Now, accustomed only to interacting with my computer and a few, familiar co-workers and friends, my social “skills” seem to be sorely lacking. When someone comes up to the grocery store to ask me if I’m finding everything ok, the best I can do is a disinterested “Mmmm-hmmm.” Heaven forbid I have to make small talk with the checker. Yet, when I am in an environment where I have to provide some sort of customer service (volunteering at an event, etc), that easy, chatty, friendly side of me emerges out of nowhere—like someone flipped on a switch. Why is it that a quality like sociability can be so hit-or-miss, on-and-off? Do I really live so deeply inside my own head sometimes that talking to a cashier first involves swimming up from the bottom of a ten foot deep end? Maybe. But that still doesn’t excuse Mr. Shrimp-smeller.