Nov 6, 2007

Mean People Suck

“You’re not still mad that I yelled at you," the tall studious redhead said to the sweet butch gal behind the counter.

“Nah”...the shorter one said with a dismissive wave of the hand. And then she added something but I didn’t hear what it was. From her casual tone I could tell it was either “Nah...I like to be corrected...” or “Nah...I don’t mind it...” or “Nah...I’m used to it.”

I didn’t hear this part of her response partly because I was in disbelief that I was overhearing any of this conversation given the fact that I was only in this coffee shop because someone had just been mean to me, and partly because I was busy gathering my stuff--a small pot of rosy earl grey tea and a giant oatmeal cookie that cost $2--and scurrying off to my table because I both needed the sugary warm therapy and because I didn’t want the tall studious redhead to yell at me for eavesdropping.

Forty-five minutes earlier I fought back tears when a woman I only know by sight scolded me for not bringing my own paper to the copy machine on the fifth floor of my kids’ school. It’s a prewar building and so five flights is really ten flights. The second floor copy machine was either broken or just acting broken. It claimed it couldn’t do a thing until I put more staples in it--regardless of whether or not the small job I was begging it to do required staples (it didn’t). And even though the science teacher, whose copying mission was also thwarted by the staple-obsessed monstrosity, told me the whereabouts of three other machines scattered about the sprawling city block of building, my first peek into the first of these alternate locations yielded a gruff “you need to go up to the 5th floor and use theirs” from a tightly-wound beet-red male teacher. He thrust a ropy arm into the air and pointed sharply towards the heavens. He didn’t make contact with me but rather glared in the direction of his bagel, which meant the conversation was over.

I tromped upstairs past the other floors that, according to the science teacher, had copy machines that, according to the angry man-teacher, were off-limits to a parent like me, and got to the fifth floor.

At one point I passed a chipmunky lady I recognized from the lower floors where my kids’ elementary classrooms are. I smiled at her and added a flash of knowing brightness that was meant to signal “I don’t know you that well but I do know you well enogh to know that it’s funny to see you somewhere other than where I”m used to seeing you.” She didn’t flash anything back.

I found the copy room and entered. Two women looked at me and sighed like they’d already been through the encounter we were about to have.

“It’ll be awhile” one of them said, probably for the seventh time in five minutes, given her tone and the conspiratorial way she glanced at the other woman--a quiet Asian woman with the presence of a student teacher and a ream of paper clutched to her chest.

“I’ll come back in a few minutes,” I said and decided to go find a bathroom even though I didn’t have to pee. I just needed a quick change of scenery.

When I returned to the cramped toner-fumed room the chipmunky lady was in there too. As I cleared off a folding chair so I could sit to wait for my turn, chipmunk lady turned to me and said “you brought your own paper?”

I didn’t understand...I couldn’t tell if she was helping me or not--like maybe she was about to offer me paper, or maybe she was filling me in on some paper shortage that had occurred when I was in the bathroom. She repeated--”you brought your own paper, right? Because up here you can’t use theirs.” She smiled and winked at the other women in the room in a ‘get a load of this one’ kind of gum-cracking way.

When I realized that she was scolding me in a sideways ‘betcha weren’t thinking, huh?--betcha thought you could bring your elementary business up to the high school copier, eh?’ kind of way, I didn’t let her know I was catching on.

Rather, I kept the furrowed brow “I don’t get it” look because if I let go of that disguise I’d have cried. There had to be a way around this, I thought...I was here on class-parent business. Class parent business, for God’s sake! For the school’s sake! Wasn’t this a good deed? Plus, this is a school. Aren’t we all here for the kids? The seeds of the future? Tomorrow’s leaders? Tomorrow’s class-parents? Tomorrow’s xerox-copiers?

Chipmunk lady then launched into a soliloquy about how when strangers use the copy machines they break them, and that strangers shouldn’t be allowed to use the copy machines. She went right up to the edge of suggesting that I was the one who had confused the machine on the first floor but didn’t go over it.

I kept acting like I didn’t know what she meant and shook my head in bland-mock-disbelief at the lecture (like ‘damn all those strangers trying to use the machines), until the lady who had seemed in charge of the mood in the room when I arrived handed me a stack of extra- long powder-blue paper and said ‘if you don’t mind blue, you can use this.’

I took the blue paper. I made my copies. I left the room. I burst into tears. And then I went to the coffee-shop to warm my soul and cool off.

Chipmunk lady had just joined my list of mean people. Along with the Fairway manager who indicated that my dropping of a glass jar of wheat germ hadn’t been an accident, the old man at the outdoor bus- stop who scolded me for talking on a cell phone, and the Polish consignment shop lady who laid into me for bringing two bags of Flax
and Eileen Fisher cast-offs to her store (even though I called ahead to make sure she’d accept them and she’d said yes), because she was ‘trying to run a business here’ and she didn’t think my presentation was appropriate.

I have never understood why some people just choose meanness. It is a choice, isn’t it? It’s been the most major shock of growing up for me--even more shocking than the fact that I never stopped being me on the inside of my body.

As a kid I didn’t realize that grown-ups could be mean. I’d always assumed that all the stuff we were learning about being patient and kind we were learning because we had to be those things to be grown-up. In my own house I saw no badly-behaving grown-ups. In my little town I saw very very few badly-behaving grown-ups. (I
should clarify here that it turns out grown-ups *were* behaving badly...but it is of no small significance to me and to my developing self that it was all tucked behind closed doors, in bedrooms, or in the basement where the alcohol was kept).

Mine was an intimate college town and, until I was a teenager and my dad was on the vestry that felt forced to fire our minister-friend who lived next door, and I learned that a man who preached things like humility and turning the other cheek was super-good at maintaining a three year long silent treatment, I’d only ever encountered one mean grown-up.

I was having a sleepover at Kit Farm’s house and we were brushing our teeth with our mouths open and her dad walked by the bathroom in time to see teensy dots of pepsodent spray out of Kit’s mouth and land on the mirror. He completely lost it. He yelled at her in a mean booming voice, grabbed her wrist, and then humiliated her by showing her (and me, by association) how to brush correctly. I remember his sharp features and floppy bangs every time I brush my teeth. Mean Mr. Farm’s demo is my own madeleine...the smell of wintergreen and rough cedar panelling brings it all back, the sight of a dot of toothpaste on a bathroom mirror can send chills up my spine... I think he might have spank ed her, I’m not sure, because we were
separated for the next few hours. I do remember being sent down to the rec-room to watch ‘Walking Tall’ in silence with her exotic and remote much older brother and sister.

Except for these two up-close examples of adults-behaving-badly, and except for the occasional dinner-table story about a mean lady in line at the bank, or an opinionated co-worker, I had no reason to NOT assume that graduating into adulthood would mean entering a world of well-meaning, well-behaved men and women.

And even though I’m forty and I have three kids, when someone’s unnecessarily and unexpectedly mean to me I cry. And it only happens a handful of times a year. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping. And I didn't think forty would feel this way.


Anonymous said...

Ugh, I don't know why people have to be that way, my father would say "their mother didn't love them" I'm the same way as you, thank god I have a job where niceness is valued. I think it's better to be like you than to be like them - and come to think of it, this tendency to cry when people are mean actually saved my life, --the receptionist at a medical testing place started being really mean saying they couldn't fit me in for a cat scan for my abdominal pain, I started crying and all of a sudden they fit me in and and they discovered my appendix had ruptured... -Phebe

Rob said...

Yeah, I'm with you on this one. I don't see a lot of unnecessary 'meanness' here in the midwest but its out there. People seem to just 'get off' on having power over others in this way. Usually if you say, "OK, well thanks. You seem to be having a rough day; I hope that gets better for you" they'll flip back into normal.

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