The People In Your Neighborhood

November 15, 2013

Some of my friends have decided to list at least one thing a day they’re thankful for every day this month. At least I think they’re doing it every day this month. They’re doing it because Thanksgiving falls on November 28th, and it could be that they’re planning to be thankful that they can spend the last two days of the month in a turkey-induced coma. I haven’t been going along with them. It’s not that I’m an ungrateful person. On the contrary there are so many things I’m grateful for that I’m afraid I’ll leave something out, and then I’ll feel guilty about it, or I’ll leave someone out, and they’ll point it out, and I’ll feel even worse when I wake up from my turkey stupor on December 1st.

That’s why one of the things I’m grateful for is strangers. I’m not grateful for just any strangers, though. I’m grateful for the ones who’ve made my trips to the grocery store, which always proliferate around this time of year, so much more interesting. I’m grateful for the crazy old woman who came up next to me while I was buying Pop Tarts. I thought I was alone in the aisle as I tried to decide between blueberry and strawberry, frosted or unfrosted. I turned, and there she was, her head over my shoulder, peering at the shelf. I nearly jumped, which would have knocked her false teeth out. She had on dark-rimmed glasses, and she had a thick moustache, and I’m pretty sure she was wearing a balaclava. I have no idea what a balaclava really is, but I keep running across the word in old books, and it sounds like something worn by old ladies and Teddy Roosevelt, who she resembled. And then she asked, “Which kind do they like?” This question opened up a universe of possibilities, but I was so startled I didn’t answer her. I just grabbed a box and ran, and it wasn’t until I got home that I found I’d gotten sour quince Pop Tarts.

Then there was the time, just before a big snowstorm, when I was picking up a few necessities, and an older gentleman with an English accent stopped me to ask where he could find cat litter. And then he asked if there was anything else he should get. I told him that, in our area, people prepare for snow by stocking up on bread, eggs, milk, and toilet paper. I didn’t add that I didn’t know why people consider high-fiber French toast a cold weather necessity. Anyway, he said, “Well, I’d better get those things as well. When in Rome one must do as the Nashvillians do.” And then he disappeared, leaving me wondering who he was and why he and I weren’t swapping stories about the Boer war at the pub every Thursday night.

My happiest experience, though, was when I was stopped by a man and woman and asked if I could settle an argument. I said, “No, but I’m pretty good at starting them.” They considered this good enough to ask my opinion anyway. They pointed to two types of honey jars: one shaped like a bear and one decorated with a honeycomb design. I said I preferred the honeycomb. Bears are always scary, and you don’t know what a bear full of honey is going to do, even if it is smiling and has an enormous nozzle in its skull. The woman started poking her finger in the man’s chest, saying, “I told you! I told you bears are scary! And people see honeycombs and they think of honey!” Actually they also think of bees, which are also scary, but I wasn’t going to tell her that, because she seemed pretty scary herself, and she didn’t even have a nozzle in her head, although she was wearing some kind of knitted thing that might have been a balaclava. Then she turned to me and explained that they were beekeepers and were trying to decide what would be best for selling honey. The guy folded his arms and kind of smirked at me and said, “Thanks buddy. I’ll see YOU in the beer aisle.” And then they moved on.

About thirty seconds later I realized that I’d just been talking to a couple of apiarists. Not only was that incredibly cool, but how often do you get a chance to show off that you know a word like “apiarists”? And I always want to support local businesses, so I wanted to know where I could buy their honey. Also I wanted to know what the guy had planned for me in the beer aisle. It could have been bad, but I was hoping it would be something good, like cracking open a couple of cold ones and swapping Boer war stories until security threw us out. That’s the sort of thing that can turn a complete stranger into a lifelong friend. Of course you can also learn too much about someone too quickly that way, so it’s the sort of thing that can also turn a lifelong stranger into someone you never want to see again. Maybe I should be grateful they were gone by the time I got to the beer aisle.

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