Three days ago, I started posting short videos of myself on Facebook, where I talk to my friends and, by the second one (of three at this writing), anyone in general. Due to this pandemic pandemonium, as I’ve been calling the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve felt a need more than ever to be seen and heard, connected and not alone. In a span of five days, my mood state has especially soared up and down, hopeful some days, discouraged the next. I’ve made it my clear intention to remain open to the new possibilities arising from this strange, distressing world situation. This has already borne out some positive experiences and understandings, for which I’m grateful. However, with so many drastic changes happening at once, I find adjusting to them a mix of intriguing, surprising, fulfilling, scary, and unpleasant. Hence, why some days feel better than others. I think this is to be expected. Many of us are undoubtedly experiencing a similar see-saw of emotions.
Just a short while ago, I was soberly reminded of how people besides myself are feeling painfully challenged. Standing first in line with a shopping cart, purple rubber gloves covering my hands to protect me from the corona virus, I waited with several others for our local Trader Joe’s market to open for the day. A sixty-something-year-old woman took a cart and then stood near the entrance, opposite the queue of people. I mentioned to her that the line started over where I stood, to which she angrily snapped, “I understand, but I’m not getting in it! Everyone will be able to go inside anyway!” A short while later, a worker came out to place disinfectant wipes by the carts. He turned to the woman and matter-of-factly reminded her where the line was in order to enter the store. She let fly some “f” bombs at the man and explained that she comes to the store every week, recently had a knee replacement, and would let other people go by to get inside. She just was not going to go all the way down to the end of the line. I chimed in, “So do we,” in response to her fact of frequently shopping at T.J.’s. She then swore at me as well. I gestured with my index finger before my mouth, releasing a “Shhh.”
I take no pride in how I responded to this woman. There I was, not only speaking for myself (as, indeed, I do shop at Trader Joe’s every weekend), but presumptively for the twenty or more people waiting behind me. Such an angry and seemingly entitled response evoked my own “us against you” reply. Having been bullied at school during a good share of my childhood and adolescence, I know all too well how it feels to be singled out and “put in my place” by a group. But, that said, I spoke this morning from a protective, reactive part of me I rarely ever express, getting caught up in this poor woman’s polarizing, angry part of her psyche that spoke from actual pain and difficulty she’d been enduring.
In a short while, I found myself thinking how it was sad this older (than I) woman felt such a need to lead in public from a place of vitriolic anger. Perhaps she could have explained to the Trader Joe’s employee and the rest of us there that she was experiencing some difficulty from having her knee recently replaced. Would it be alright if she didn’t wait in line, but enter the store first so she could then get off her feet that much sooner? This I would have understood and compassionately permitted. She was probably at least sixty-five years old. And gods know what else was going for her in addition to this world health crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if the worker would have allowed her inside right away, perhaps even a bit sooner than the rest of us. After all, I’ve read about some stores allowing elderly individuals to come in and make purchases an hour or so before the mad rush of shoppers flood in. Of course, all of this is mere speculation, since the scenario did not happen that way. Very likely, the angry individual had already been shamed elsewhere for simply having needs, be it recently and/or repeatedly in her distant past. Clearly, this particular morning, she felt an inner pressure to lead her life as if prepared to fight against the rest of the world. I’ve certainly been there too now and then.
I came away from my shopping trip reminded yet again, more than ever, that many human experiences are greatly shared, including ones that have yet to arise in the future for some. Such circumstances and events have simply not occurred for those people– yet. While it wasn’t me in the moment feeling particularly hurt inside to then harshly defend with anger a deep sense of vulnerability and intense need like this woman customer clearly was going through, it certainly has been me in other instances. If I live long enough, my body will remind me too that I need to get off my feet sooner than those who are younger or have stronger knees. But, I trust I will do all I can to set my anger to the side and lead with a gentler voice and words to advocate for my needs. With age has come some wisdom for me to draw from, should I choose.
Reflecting on standing in that store line, I recall looking behind me more than once at the growing stream of people waiting in the bracingly cold wind of early spring in Massachusetts. We were all in need, coping as best we could in the face of incredible uncertainty, there to get food and other basic supplies. I was impressed with how well-behaved everyone else was being, each and every person undoubtedly filled with concerns about their own and their loved ones’ future. Yes, I was at the head of the line, but well aware how we are all in this together.
Addendum update: Since the above writing, a mandate by the Commonwealth of MA went into effect whereby people aged sixty and older must be allowed the first hour each day of shopping in a grocery store, at the exclusion of everyone else who is younger. The disgruntled woman customer I wrote about can rest easy from now until this pandemic crisis is over whenever she waits in line, first thing in the morning, at Trader Joe’s. She has been fairly and duly accommodated. I hope for her sake that this makes her life a bit easier, enough to hopefully begin to facilitate improving her behavior in public.