23 October 2014

The Best Answer

Some time ago I called Mom on a rainy day in November, just as the Holiday Season was kicking in to gear at the Bay Shore Mall in Milwaukee where she worked.  Intrepid, hard-working, a cheerful demeanor for her customers always hiding the jaded perspective she hid well beneath the surface, she brought me up to speed on the goings on at Boston Store.  

"Some genius went to the bathroom in the changing room yesterday," she sighed.  "Such is the nature of the work.  I put on gloves and cleaned it up."  

I was silent on the other end of the phone.  Seeing public defecation in New York isn't exactly news. However the relative anonymity of the city tends to often veil us from this excremental reality, other than its malodorous intrusions or, God forbid, an unfortunate misstep.  Additionally, in the heart of Baby-Centric Brooklyn, one's day is often punctuated by moms and dads changing kids in all sorts of venues--coffee shops, restaurant benches, beneath the arboreal canopy of the park, on a subway seat, what have you.  So, you know, everyone poops.  

But there was something particularly violative of changing room poop.  It conveyed, what?  A lack of self-control; a malevolent intent; mental illness; a political statement?  Against malls?  

Mom was unmoved.

"I'm a wage earner," she explained.  "This is the kind of shit we deal with."

We laughed, but not uproariously.

Yesterday, after a meeting in a nice Midtown office, speaking about the loftiness of Jewish values, identity and Israel engagement, I jumped over to Macy's to buy some socks.  I needed socks. After making my selections--solids and a few trendy stripes (when did stripes get so trendy?  everyone's wearing striped socks)--I went to ring up.

The man behind the counter was in his early seventies.  He was wearing nice slacks, a grey shirt and a floral patterned tie.  We talked about the book I had set on the counter (Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns) just next to my umbrella, and the incessant rain.  I politely declined his invitation to apply for a Macy's card and as he totalled me up, I could sense the next customer in line tensing over our conversation and the salesclerk reading the awkwardness, if not the yearning, for more such encounters, the social grease of capitalism's "weal" that is perhaps a dying art in our click-to-shop material culture.  When he asked if I wanted my receipt emailed or in print, I said, "Give me the paper," and he generously placed it in the plastic bag, at rest among the socks.

As I walked away I thought of Mom--how could I not?--and back to man, wondering what rooms he'd clean that day; what customers would look right past him, down into their phone, their wallet, the exigencies of their own transactional lives.  Would he work Black Friday, folding and refolding the piles of clothes left on the floor in the mad rush of sale shoppers?  Would his packed lunch sit uneaten, lost in time to too much work on the floor?  And when he went home at night, would he have a kid to call and recount the day's work to, the din of late night television in the background, the newspaper out on the table next to dinner, a story, a laugh?

Earlier that day I had gone down to our corner grocer to get some laundry detergent and conscientious Brooklyn consumer that I am, had taken my cloth bag, to avoid the plastic.  At the end of the day I went back to get some popcorn kernels and seltzer as an after school snack for the girls.  I forgot the cloth bag as I approached the cash register.  The clerk from the morning was still there, ringing people up all day.  

"What happened to your principles?" she asked with a wink.

"How was your day?" I responded.  It was the best answer I could come up with.

No comments: