THURSDAY, STARBUCKS – I just spent twenty minutes listening to two teenager/twentysomething girls complain about their babysitting wards, specificially some kid named Soren. I kept meaning to start writing something, but I was drawn in beyond understanding. Soren dropped something on the floor and then just walked away. She would totally clean it up no problem, one girl assured, but it was the laissez-faire attitude Soren possessed that really irked her. By the way, that’s never true. It’s never that you would totally clean something up but the person was rude about it – you also don’t want to have to clean it up. But for some reason, it’s unacceptable to say, “I don’t want to clean up after you, Soren!” I laugh so hard at this fake, imaginary person who loves cleaning up after people but loves politeness more.
“Do the parents care?” “No. I mean, they get mad, but they don’t really do anything.”
I’ve been doing a lot of eavesdropping lately. Not necessarily on purpose, but it’s just been happening. I work at a moderately hipster, reasonably priced popular grocery chain. And what I’ve learned in the almost five months I’ve been there is that nothing makes you more invisible to people than working retail. People, bless their hearts, really are blind to you.
The other day, I was manning a register when, behind me, a customer was loudly monologuing about the upcoming Super Bowl. “Tom Brady’s so mentally strong,” she was trying to convince my co-worker who, bless her, does not watch football. “He’s totally mentally strong,” she shouted into the void. When I turn innocuously to catch a glimpse of her, she latched onto me. “You watch football right?” she asked without waiting for me to answer. It’s a minute later before I found a dip in the conversation to say, “No, not really.” She bore a more-than-passing resemblance to Jenna Lyons, the former creative director and president of J.Crew – slightly more mannish and full, but strangely magnetic.
Even after we’ve all affirmed that we, unlike her, do not watch football – I’ve watched one game this season – she continued to launch several rhetorical questions into the open air. Receipt in her hand, she kept going. Next customer being rung up, still she stood talking. And finally, when she said her goodbyes and pushed her laden cart out of the store.
Days later, she came to my register and started talking – mercifully, not about football. She was ranting about The Walking Dead before offering up, sans spoiler alert, “Yeah Carl was bitten.” And when I said, “Oh I don’t watch that show,” she repeated the spoiler, “Yeah, he’s the son. He’s annoying. He’s dead, well, not yet but he will be. That show’s really going off the rails.” To so brazenly offer up what was surely a pivotal twist in the series without even the slightest concern or spoiler alert – what if I were watching the show? – was shocking. When I offered up that I was currently watching The Crown, she pivoted easily and naturally. She had not seen the show but her brother-in-law was the owner of some football team and also an ambassador to the U.K. She dug up a picture of him meeting the Queen and attempted to show me several more Instagrams before the lack of Wi-Fi foiled her. She would, she promised me, show me the photos next time.
As she left, I had to fight a smile from creeping across my face. When I first escaped her football speech, I pictured what the rest of her day must look like, as I often do with customers. I pictured her talking the ear off of other mothers at drop-off; I pictured her loudly holding court at the dinner table. I pictured her as loving fiercely, but suffocatingly. But something about her vicious lack of wherewithal about name-dropping shifted my lens of her.
She just, bless, didn’t give a fuck. She wanted to name-drop, and so she did. She had opinions about The Walking Dead, so she shared them. She had an effusive admiration of Tom Brady, so she expressed it. It didn’t matter to her that no one shared in her journey; an audience was entirely beside the point. What I had interpreted as an inability to read the room was actually just blind conviction. And there’s something about bald and bold confidence that draws me to people. People so often step around how they feel, like those girls did with Soren. Instead of just saying, “Fuck off Soren, I’m not your maid, I’m your babysitter. Now clean up the floor,” she couched it in the way he (or she, the name Soren leaves the gender mysterious) handled the dropping. But I imagined that “Mentally Strong” would have no problem eviscerating Soren. And Soren would probably, eventually, be grateful for the straight talk.
People so rarely say what they mean. We’re wrapped up in manners and culture – it’s not necessarily a bad thing – but it was so arresting to see someone so unconcerned with the norms. A normal person would exchange meaningless banter at the register – their weekend, the weather, perhaps a recipe or two. But for her, all the world’s a stage.