NOTE: I hereby grant permission for all archiving and other uses of this work, public or private, free or paid, in any format whether existing now or to be invented in the future, so long as a copy of this note and credit to "theGreatxIam" is given and no alteration is made to the body of the work. Copyright 2001, theGreatxIam
You've just stood for five minutes in a cafeteria line to get today's version of an allegedly healthy meal -- wilted brown lettuce and tuna that came from a fish tossed onto the boat by its picky peers because it lacked taste. That and a lukewarm cola from the don't-call-it-Coke machine are going to set you back $4.50, if the unsmiling mouthbreather at the cash register ever finishes her interrogation. That all? For here or to go? Cash, charge or on account? On account of you're driving me crazy, you want to say, but you just tell her "cash," since the $10 bill in your hand apparently isn't enough of a clue. She plucks it away, slides it into a cubby in the cash drawer, and counts out your change, just like they taught her: four-fifty, five, ten, twenty.
What do you do?
Come on, quickly! The guy behind you in line is already shoving his tray full of carbohydrates forward.
Do you rush away from the cashier quick as you can, trying to decide whether to spend your extra $10 on the Lotto or a few beers tonight?
Do you sidle away cautiously, trying desperately not to attract attention, rehearsing the pose of astonished innocence you'll adopt if the cashier catches her error and calls you back?
Or do you hold up the line while you try to give back the extra cash, even if it means explaining it twice, slowly, in little words, before the cashier understands and accepts the money with no thanks and perhaps even a hint of suspicion in her glance?
That last one is me, every time. I can't help it; I was raised that way.
Being honest and polite in today's society sometimes feels like the whole world's a set of biker's leathers and you're a pair of oxblood wingtips. Refuse to join your fellow students in cheating on a test and you become a social outcast. Try to hold open a door for someone, man, woman, or child, and you get tangled in a jerky waltz of feints and sidesteps; they're waiting for you to swoop in front of them. Allow a pregnant woman juggling a gallon of milk, a box of Frosted Flakes, two apples and a peach to cut in front of you and the woman behind you interrupts her cellphone conversation long enough to drive her full-to-the-brim cart into your ankle in spite.
Bottom line? It doesn't pay to be polite today. But that's not the point, is it? You're not supposed to be polite so you can earn a reward, at least not in this world. You're courteous because it's the right thing to do; you're polite because that's how you'd want other people to treat you; you're honest because to lie is a sin. You don't get anything in return.
Well, usually you don't.
That's how last Wednesday started out.
I was slow to get out of bed because I'd been up late the night before instant-messaging and e-mailing my nephew Pete, who had a term paper due on the Napoleonic Wars. As the only one of my family -- two brothers, two sisters -- who's childless and single, I'm the one who gets called on for all late-night emergencies. I'm not quite sure if that's simply because my siblings figure I have no social life or some subtle form of revenge because I do. In this case, I couldn't complain much about the logic. I was a history major for two years before I switched to business when I decided I had gotten too attached to eating regularly. My brother is the mechanical one, and my sister-in-law -- well, suffice it to say that with her education, the sum total of her knowledge of the Napoleonic Wars comes from being able to sing the chorus of Abba's "Waterloo" verbatim.
So I was the lucky pup who got to stay up all night electronically coaching Pete through his paper. He kept asking if I couldn't just tell him what to write. Instead, I directed him to several good Web sites, told him to send me an outline, rough drafts, the whole "give a man a fish-teach him to fish" routine.
Sometime around 2 a.m. Pete informed me he was finished -- a surprise, because I hadn't even seen a full first draft. That's when he told me he'd also been IM'ing some of his classmates and they'd sent him to a term paper site where he'd bought a B+ paper with his mom's credit card. He signed off without even a thank-you. Like I said, you don't get anything in return.
I'd finally gotten to sleep sometime around 3, so when my alarm clock clanged at 6 I just punched it off and rolled over -- for a few more minutes, I told myself.
It was 6:45 before I peeled my eyes open again. So much for having a leisurely breakfast, which is how I like to start my day. So much for having any breakfast, in fact. I raced through my morning ablutions and was almost back on schedule when I heard the first crack of thunder. I spent 15 minutes searching for my umbrella before I remembered that I'd loaned it to my cubicle neighbor for his lunchtime dash to the coffee shop three days ago and he never gave it back. Never gave me the change from my double tall latte either, it occurred to me.
Oh, well. At least I'd have the morning paper outside my apartment door. I prefer to read it on the train, so I always leave it outside until I leave. Today it could be an impromptu bumbershoot.
But... no paper. Not the first time that had happened. I suspected the woman two floors up whom I'd caught a couple of times peeking out of the elevator when it had mysteriously stopped on my floor before I could get to press the button. Our floor was an obvious target for paper snatchers because there were four of us who all got home delivery. In fact, I noticed, 6-C hadn't retrieved his paper yet.
I admit I hesitated, but only for a second. It just wouldn't be right.
I was already running late, so I couldn't wait for the storm to pass. I was resigned to getting soaked. But by the time I got to the lobby, it looked as if it were letting up a little. The doorman offered a cab, but I gestured to pass it on to a woman who I'd passed in the lobby wrestling with an umbrella. The doorman had barely gotten the cab door open when the woman shot past me, throwing her umbrella and a paper into the car and jumping in after them. As the cab drove away, splashing my slacks, I got a look at her face.
It was the paper snatcher.
Ah, well. It wasn't raining that hard. And I only had six blocks to the subway station. I started to hoof it.
Halfway there, it began to pour. I quickly had water streaming down my face. Ducking under the narrow overhang of a newsstand, I bought a paper. I only had a $5 bill. The guy gave me change, mostly in pennies. As I raised the paper over me and stepped away, I noticed he'd given me 3 cents too many. Two other guys were lined up to buy papers so I stepped around them to hand back the pennies. As I did, I felt something cold on my foot and looked down. The puddle was at least four inches deep.
I squished and squooshed the rest of the way. By now I was so far behind my schedule that I'd run smack into rush hour. I had to wait for three trains before I could even squeeze onto one, what with people pushing past me.
Let me make this clear: I get up so early -- normally -- because I am not a sardine and I don't like being treated like one. My usual subway ride is a calm, if jolting, trundle. I can always get a seat -- indeed, I usually have enough room to spread out my paper without disturbing anyone next to me.
Not so on this morning. The subway car was jammed full of damp humanity. I could barely move, but with some effort and many apologies I began to ease away from the doors and toward the center of the car like the signs tell you to do.
And then it appeared. An empty seat, right in front of me. I swear an angelic choir sent forth a hosanna. I was wet from head to toe -- well, at least my right foot's toes -- I had no newspaper and I was going to be late for work. But at least I had a seat.
I dove down into it. Bliss on a metal frame was that cracked orange Naugahyde. I closed my eyes for a moment to savor the feeling.
When I opened them, there, right in front of me, was a little old lady.
Dried-apple face. Babushka. Mesh shopping bag. Black socks and sandals. The whole nine yards.
My backside tried to burrow down into the seat but my soul pulled me to my feet.
At the same moment, a woman across the aisle also got up. We bumped elbows as we both gestured the old woman to our respective seats. She looked us both over as if we were escaped lunatics. I guess I looked the part more, bedraggled as I was. The other woman had evidently had benefit of an umbrella for her trip to the train. Her blonde hair, which fell straight back halfway down her pin-striped blue jacket, was shiny and dry. No drops of water on the tip of her aquiline nose or the tops of her rosy cheeks, nothing to distract your attention from her startlingly blue eyes.
Whether it was appearances or the fact that my abandoned spot now had a puddle in the seat, the old woman picked the other offering.
As we shuffled around, I then offered my seat to the polite young -- 30ish, I'd say -- woman. She declined. I insisted. She demurred. We could have gone on with this Alphonse and Gaston act for quite awhile, but she pointed out it had become moot. Some crewcut in a Raiders T-shirt had slid behind and taken my seat.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's my fault."
"No, no, not at all, miss."
"Call me Diane."
"No, Diane, it wasn't your fault. If anyone's to blame it's..." I indicated with a sideways glance the Raiders fan.
Diane smiled. "Some people can be so rude, can't they? It's a joy to find someone else who'd actually give up his seat... I'm sorry, I didn't get your name."
I told her. We chatted a bit until the noise level made intelligent conversation impossible. By then we'd been buffetted by the jostling crowd. I had backed up against a pole at the side of one bench seat in an attempt to give Diane a little breathing room, but the car got even more jammed and she was forced right up against me. We both started to apologize. Then we both indicated the other should go first. But that part was communicated only by eyes, for a further stuffing of our already over-full car had pressed her flat against me.