Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey
Why do we write? For money? For fame? For immortality? To validate our own view of the world? To prove something?
A recent experience at the grocery store brought new clarity to my answer to this question.
People who know me well know that I’ve been involved in a soul-sucking legal battle with corrupt corporate forces for the last five years. I more-or-less won that battle a couple months ago. Thank God. However, it was a terrible, wearing experience thrust upon me by corporate greed and corruption. About a month before that battle finally ended, I was feeling the wearying weight of it as soon as I woke up on a particular Thursday. I got up, engaged my autopilot, and shuffled off to the kitchen to fry a couple eggs and brew some coffee.
There were no eggs in the fridge. I had a Tourette’s moment and hoped the neighbors didn’t hear me.
I struggled making coffee. I screwed it up twice before I got a cup of coffee I could drink. I then discovered I had no half-and-half. Another Tourette’s moment.
I need cream. I can’t drink coffee without it. No, dammit, I refuse to drink coffee without it—and I don’t want any of that fake creamer crap, either. It’s not much to ask of the universe, but I do ask that my coffee have decent cream.
So, in rare existential form, I accepted defeat and acknowledged the fated fact that I was going to get a late start on the day. After making a list of three things to pick up at the grocery, I plugged in my earbuds to continue listening to my current audio book, The Disappearing Spoon, and headed down to Freddie’s, my local grocery.
In the more-or-less gray mental fog of my normal, pre-coffee dysthymic depressive experience, I found myself thinking about my brother-in-law’s illness, the periodic table, my lawyer, and the emotionally flat affect of the fiction I’d been producing. Somehow, I was pretty sure all these things were related, but I was too emotionally gray to force myself to tease out the relationships, preferring instead to let the words from the audio device intertwine themselves into my nonlinear interior monolog.
At the front door to the grocery, I encountered a crowd of very old people. Weaving my way through them, it dawned on me that I was seeing a crowd waiting for the bus service that takes otherwise house-bound seniors to get groceries. My 90-year-old British ex-pat neighbor lady, whom I take to doctor’s appointments and have tea with, had graced me with narrated versions of a few of her epic quests via these busses. The crowd seemed to be waiting, and a new thread showed up in my mental playlist.
Someday, if I’m lucky enough to live so long, I might be in that group. Do you think fiction groups and role playing games will be big in retirement homes when I get there? I hope so.
So, I passed on through, picked up my basket, and entered the store. Immediately, I was almost run over by a hurrying elderly woman. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and froze before we collided. It would have been like a Smart Car hitting a Peterbilt loaded with lumber. Just to be clear, her maybe 80 pound osteoporosis body was the whizzing Smart Car. My plodding, 180 pound meat suit was the overloaded truck.
I motioned for her to go ahead of me into the produce area. She nodded and hurried past, and I wondered what she might have forgotten. It occurred to me briefly that in such situations I almost always defer to others. I rarely feel like I’m late for anything, and I’m lucky that I don’t generally have to worry about my influence on other people’s schedules. Her bus was probably due to leave soon, and I certainly had no reason to slow her down.
Methodically, I found my cream, orange juice, and eggs while learning from my audio book that Madam Currie was believed by other women in her time to be a bit morally loose.
Just as M. Currie was gleefully pulling two male colleagues into a dark closet to show them a sample of material—material we would now call extremely hazardous—that glowed in the dark, I found a short checkout line at the 12 items and below lanes. I pulled my earbuds from my ears, put away my audio device, and prepared to engage with actual people.
A senior woman had beaten me to the line. She was engaged in a friendly chat with the checkout lady. From the look of it, I inferred that the old woman was getting in her once a week conversation with another human being, so I tried to relax and look unhurried in order to give her time to get her joy.
In the back of my mind, I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t I supposed to look like I was in a hurry and had very important things to do? Shouldn’t I cross my arms, scowl, and tap my foot?
I wondered what it would take to hype myself to that level of pointless behavior. I didn’t think I could it. I suppose that was because I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t have really important things to do that hadn’t already been screwed by my lack of eggs and half-and-half.
So, I waited.
I scanned the tabloids.
I miss The World News Report. I used to read it in the checkout line. Now-a-days, I only see celebrity mags. There is not one single UFO alien bat baby hybrid LA housewife in the batch of broadsides. I wondered if that said something about our declining cultural sense of whimsy and humor?
The senior lady moved on, and the checkout lady checked out my “fewer than twelve items.” We said the normal things, and in mid-sentence, she grabbed something off the counter and bolted away as if I had just threatened to eat her soul. I checked my admittedly coffee-starved memory and confirmed that I had not, in fact, threatened to eat her soul.
She chased down the senior lady, who had only managed to get about ten yards closer to the front door. Apparently, the lady had left an item behind. The checkout woman and the senior chatted for a minute. The package changed hands.
In keeping with my previous musings, I thought to myself, this is where I’m supposed to get angry and say something rude. You’re not on script, Eric. Maybe with coffee I can be meaner.
The checkout lady came back and sheepishly finished ringing me up.
I saw a couple of boxes on the counter, and I asked if those might also belong to the senior lady.
Checkout lady sheepishly said, “No.”
I smiled, gathered up my bags, and for no reason I can name said, “It’s good that you are a kind soul.”
She lit up like a searchlight. We both parted, smiling.
I was smiling, but actually I was still living in my land of gray mists and muted mental tones. I was nearly to the front door when I realized she had felt guilty for making me wait while she helped the senior lady. A few steps later, I realized that I had said the right thing to let her feel some pride in what she had done. A few steps after that, I saw the Starbucks sign at the corner of the front of the grocery.
I thought I sprinted to the Starbucks, but I suspect I only managed a pre-senior shuffle. I had a gift card from my sister, and I planned to cut the fog with a serious coffee gift.
While waiting for my order, I watched the counter clerk and barista and realized that they had almost identical “I’m concentrating” expressions. While picking up my much needed 20 ounce, triple shot, vanilla latte, I asked the barista if the two of them were related.
She said no, and she asked me why I thought that.
I said, “You both make the same facial ‘I’m working’ expressions.”
Walking away, nursing my coffee, I heard the barista repeat what I said. The two women busted out laughing hard. I’m not sure why it was funny, but I’m glad it was.
In the lobby, there was still a crowd of seniors. I squeezed past a guy in a Steven Hawking wheelchair. He seemed about to panic because he was kind of boxed in and couldn’t easily shift his chair out of my way. He looked almost terrified.
I put a hand on his shoulder and gently said, “It’s okay. You’re fine.” He relaxed, and I slipped past him and moved on.
Crossing the lobby it occurred to me that I had just had a fairly nice sequence of interactions that took place mainly because I wasn’t in a hurry and have a habit of looking into people’s faces and thinking about how they feel and behave.
It’s a writer thing, or maybe I’m a writer because of it.
Anyway, I found myself thinking how sad it was that being in that “not in a hurry” space is not rewarded by our culture. Rather, our nation has one of the highest rates of anxiety illness in the world.
Still, I was only a few sips into my coffee, and this was all sort of mist-shrouded idle thought.
Outside the front door of the grocery, I actually met my neighbor lady friend—the bad-ass, blitz surviving war bride now in her tough as nails 90s. She was on her shopping run, and we had a smiling chat. I confirmed the next couple dates we had discussed for taking her to the doctor. She was thrilled. I was glad she was thrilled, and we also parted smiling.
I shuffled off to my car. On the way, my thoughts turned back to legal battles, flat fiction, bill paying, a lawn that needed mowing, allergies that would suck when I mowed the lawn, a deadline that was already past, and the general gray fog of living. At my car, I put my latte on the roof, fumbled for my keys, and heard a woman call out, “Hey!”
I was vaguely aware that I was pretty much alone in that part of the parking lot, and I had that little adrenaline moment where you realize that conversations that begin with “Hey!” rarely go well.
Keys a little tighter in my striking hand, I turned to face my assailant.
A fairly cute, red-headed thirty-something woman was walking purposefully toward me, her arms outstretched, her hands up high, and her fingers flipping in and out like people do when they are signaling that they are about to dock for a hug.
My assumptions were quick and fleeting.
She was a student I had forgotten.
She was someone from a seminar I had taught.
She was mentally compromised in an attractive, baby-faced, benign sort of way. She–
And she was on me and wrapping her arms around me.
I felt no fear or worry. I just accepted the hug and gave as good as I got. It was actually a very warm, caring sort of hug, and it was not at all what I expected—as if I had time to expect anything at all.
She pulled back, held my shoulders, looked directly into my eyes, and said in kind, sincere, and deliberate tones, “You, have a nice day.”
As she was turning to walk away, I said, “Thank you. You too.”
And she was gone. I was the victim of a walk-by hugging.
I have no idea what it was about. I speculated on whether she was behind me in the que or whether she had overheard me making arrangements to take my friend to the doctor. Somehow, I needed to equate the experience with some sort of reward for something I had done.
How sad that in that moment it couldn’t just have been two nice people acknowledging one another.
In that moment, the why wasn’t as important as getting groceries in the car and finding out if M. Currie scored in the closet. I gave up on speculation.
- Currie didn’t score. She just got accused of naughtiness that she didn’t actually get to enjoy.
While arranging things and self in the car, it dawned on me that perhaps our acquisition-based culture teaches us to be pricks to each other, but the universe actually does reward us for being in the moment and kind to one another. The rewards just don’t have anything to do with culturally ingrained symbols of status-based success.
The rest of my day was one, long smile. The lawyer called to tell me we were winning. A conference called to invite me to a long seminar of teaching before the actual conference. Writing went well. I even noticed some little sparks of actual emotion in my prose.
For weeks, I found myself wondering if I could get away with walk-by huggings. In the end, I decided the middle-aged, frumpy writer-guy would not get the same reception from his victims that the cute redhead got.
Why do we write? We write because we can, for just the time it takes to read a story, let people calm down and be in themselves and in an imagined community that includes emotional connection to others. We write because we can see beyond the kind of car, the prestige of neighborhood, and the status of a rung on the corporate ladder. We can tell stories bring people who would never meet or interact into one another’s lives for a little while, and when they look up from the stories, they can see one another a little more completely—a little more compassionately and clearly. We write because we can reach out to others and give them time and a hug that leaves them smiling for the rest of the day. We write because stories of hope translating into success and connection are desperately needed in a world that has taught us not to make eye contact with the person standing next to us.
And some of us write because we can’t get away with walk-by huggings.