“I wish they’d make these packages a little smaller,” a thin voice said. “This one is a lot of money and I don’t think I can eat everything before it spoils.” Not sure if he was talking to me or himself, I looked over. Smiling, the frail old man gave a shrug toward the grocery shelves. Uncomfortable that someone had broken into my personal space, I replied flatly, “Uh, yeah. Yeah, it IS a lot." Grabbing a can of soup, I walked away.
During the drive home that evening I remembered him and, come to think of it, the other folks shopping. Even the cashier was retirement age. Such was the area: a down-on-its-luck suburb on the city’s edge, full of modest post-war houses. I could see in his cart - a handful of carefully chosen, single-serve items. He probably wanted contact and I shut him down, but good. And, why not? Naturally shy and eternally preoccupied by work, I only walked across the parking lot from my office after forgetting a lunch bag on the counter.
Our exchange stayed in my thoughts. I returned to that store a few days later, even though I could have shopped in my own town. This time, I looked people in the eye, getting as far as the first aisle before an old woman chirped, “Hello!” I jumped in and volunteered that I was on my lunch break. She helpfully recommended the weekly specials flyer, “Because you really find the best bargains doing that.”
Future visits involved rolling a cart through cereals to frozen OJ to paper goods for news of the day or corny jokes or ballgame scores. My youth and height made offers to retrieve hard to reach items and assistance with small print most welcome.
Years on and several jobs later, I still try to make eye contact.