I was at Metro buying some cranberry juice because it’s the only thing I want after I’ve thrown up.
When I got to the checkout there were only two cashiers plus the lottery kiosk open, and a long lineup at the express cash, where I wanted to go.
A very sour-looking old (late 70s?) man with a grizzled grey face and clean work clothes walked past me and then swung into the line behind me. He immediately started to complain about how slow the cashiers must be, and I thought, “Oh no, please don’t start ranting.”
You know that trapped feeling? When you’re stuck waiting and can’t get away from a toxic person who’s looking for an audience? An introvert’s worst nightmare. That.
He continued, and I made a decision to be there for him, and be present to his whole self in that moment. I was thinking of the TED Talk that I’d watched last night, with the palliative care physician. That guy would have listened to the grouchy old dude.
Of course once I made eye contact he was off and running. But he wasn’t grouchy. Not really. Just very lonely.
He used to be a welder. “They call them engineers now.” His accent made me think he was a Dutchie like my sister’s in-laws, but the longer he talked I thought maybe eastern European, and then eventually maybe Italian or Portuguese. A couple of times when he said food-ish words he sounded like he was used to speaking a Romance language.
When he worked (when he was a welder/engineer) he was fast. “Like karate!” he said. Nobody could beat him. Nobody could beat him for speed.
Then he segued into talking about his health. He’d just spent four days and nights in the hospital across the street. (The same hospital where I get my chemo. The same hospital that I live beside.) He was cutting down a tree and the chainsaw fell, fracturing two of his ribs. He was very specific about using the word fracture. “Not broken.” He sprained a third.
He was on the ninth floor. (I’m not sure there is a ninth floor, but anyhow.) He watched a big storm move across the sky from far away. His eyes shone when he talked about the storm.
He didn’t take any Tylenol. Wouldn’t take any painkillers. The doctor explained it to the nurse, who couldn’t understand why not. He (the not-grouchy-old-welder-engineer-maybe-Italian man) didn’t need painkillers. His mind was strong, and could think the pain away.
I glanced at his grocery basket. I liked his choices. A couple of steaks, some chicken, calf’s liver (he told me how he cooked it), a wheel of brie, a head of radicchio, two cans of mushroom soup, and four Italian rolls. He wanted yellow perch, but there was no perch today.
The cashier had to interrupt his monologue to get my payment. I wished him goodbye when I left – the only words I said to him the whole time.
In the end the only thing I regretted was how close he got to me in the checkout. I hoped he wasn’t sick. I’m at my lowest immunity from the chemo right now.
photo: Grace, art journal spread, wax crayon and ink on paper, September 2005