Polite gestures were directed toward me the other day, and I don’t know what to make of them. I doubt that I invited them, given my tendency to avoid eye contact with strangers.
But there I was in the garden section of Home Depot, standing in a checkout line with my two six-packs of pansies. Ten feet away was a second checkout line. In my New Yorker frame of reference, these were two separate lines. I had made that determination a minute earlier. It didn’t seem right to straddle the divide and wait to see what developed. I could imagine an impatient customer growling: “Hey buddy, make up your mind already!”
Each line had one person waiting for service. Taking my cue from police departments and the Department of Homeland Security, I profiled my fellow human beings to assess their potential for trouble. I went through my stockpile of stereotypes and prejudices and decided to follow a thin, middle-aged woman at the left-side checkout rather than a heavyset, grandmotherly lady on the right side. The thin woman looked like a no-nonsense business type rushing to get an errand done; grandma struck me as the sort that might strike up a conversation with the clerk.
Unfortunately, grandma had more than enough time to chat because the thin lady couldn’t get her chip-based credit card to work despite multiple insertions and exclamations of despair. I put on my stoic face and tried to appear like a philosophical senior-citizen accustomed to life’s ups and downs.
As grandma departed with her shopping cart, a stocky, fiftyish white male who had gotten in line behind her nodded his head to indicate I could cross the great divide and go ahead of him. I declined his polite offer because – well, fair’s fair. He had picked the right line and I was a loser. That’s life.
The woman ahead of me continued to flail away with her credit card. I shifted my weight from foot to foot and stared into the parking lot. A minute or two passed. The good Samaritan across the way paid for his plants and headed for the parking lot.
Incredibly, the next customer, another white male in his 50s, also looked at me and extended his hand toward the empty counter in front of him. I shrugged off the offer while trying to look appreciative. Why was I being singled out for what seemed like special consideration? Did I look like a feeble old man who needed special consideration? Did the six-packs of pansies say something about me?
As I finally made my way toward my parked car, I wondered whether I had been inducted into a fraternity of aging white males who had weekdays free to shop at manly Home Depot. I was, after all, wearing a baseball cap and flannel shirt. Had I been the subject of someone else’s profiling and assumptions?
Then I had a more uplifting thought. Perhaps these polite gestures reflected a reaction against the general nastiness of our social climate, a silent vote for kindness and good will.
It’s nice to think so.