A minor fall, a major lift, a New Year’s tale | Chuck's World
Last updated 12/28/2016 at Noon
I am a seeker of miracles, and this is my season.
It’s just a romantic streak frosted over with sentimentality, carefully nurtured since childhood, a finely honed sense of possibility that comes almost certainly from watching too many holiday movies.
I keep my eyes open, at any rate, hoping for something to celebrate as a truly unique and unexpected goodness. Or snow, sometimes. I can get a little sentimental about snow around Christmas.
Mostly what I’m looking for, though, is something to remind me that people are basically decent, that life is harsh and unfair but that there are moments transcending all of this. Moments of unanticipated humanity in dark days. Moments to let me believe again.
This has been a rough year for miracle seekers. I don’t have to tell you that. And holidays seem counterintuitive when it comes to looking for spontaneous niceness. Drive around a shopping mall parking lot for 15 minutes around Christmas and see how much human decency you can muster up, much less find in your fellow shoppers.
I was in a grocery store last week when I was reminded that foolish hope sometimes feels awfully foolish. It was a busy day, and I carefully eyed the crowd and opted for the self-checkout kiosks. There were several people already in line, but it seemed my best bet.
And just as I reached the front, waiting for the next spot to open up, the universe started snickering at my dumb optimism. A shopper finally left, and as I began to move forward a woman, completely ignoring the line, just walked up and began scanning her groceries.
This happens. You’ve probably seen it happen. I know I have.
And yet somehow this year of acrimony, this year of loss and fear and division, this year of watching the worst of people, captured in a television studio or by a cellphone camera, flipped a fury switch.
I’m not that guy. I judge people constantly, I mutter when stuck in traffic, I cuss, I come home raging against the rudeness and stupidity of some of my fellow humans, but I tend to stay quiet in public. I’m not a confronter. I’m more of a seether.
Not this time, though. Not in December 2016. Not after this particular year.
I headed for this clueless lady, muttering bad words under my breath, and I pointed back at the line of shoppers, now numbering about a dozen behind me. “Did you miss that day in kindergarten when we all learned about standing in line?” I said, but by then a store employee was blocking my way, misunderstanding my intentions and gently guiding me back to where I’d been.
“You have to wait in line,” she said, which really didn’t improve my mood, so I just glared at this interloper, slowly scanning her stupid groceries as if the rules didn’t apply to her, obviously not hearing a word I’d said in the noisy store.
And that was it. I got my groceries, headed home, and had a story to tell, my brush with obnoxiousness. I was a little amused to have lost my temper in a public way, and glad that it was momentary and that no one had really noticed. We’ve seen enough videos of shoppers losing it.
The next day it snowed, by the way, which was enough fun to allow my little incident to drop off the radar.
There are other incidents, though. We’ve all seen them and heard them, read about them and maybe worried about them, and us. Vile, cruel, mean things that people say about and do to each other, often to the most marginalized and vulnerable among us.
I see a lot of nervousness about this, and more than a little fatalism. Maybe this American experiment has run its course. Maybe the relentless news cycles act as misdirection, or sleight of hand, the way a magician will force a card on a distracted volunteer. Maybe our attention has been forced toward the worst, but it’s hard to find much hope.
Maybe America is a broken hallelujah, to use the late Leonard Cohen’s phrase. Maybe I am. Maybe we all are, broken, bitter, cut off from the grace and good nature that seemed part of our heritage. I have no answers.
I just have a story.
I went back to the grocery store the other day. I did the self-checkout thing again. As I approached the scanner, the screen was flashing a message: Please take your change. And there it was, a $5 bill in the change slot, forgotten by the last customer.
I looked around, grabbed the bill, left my groceries and jogged out into the parking lot until I saw her. “Excuse me,” I said, and she turned around. “I think you forgot this,” and she smiled, rolled her eyes at her own forgetfulness, and thanked me in a friendly way. It was a nice, human connection, a chance to do a good deed and to get thanks in return.
A simple thing, a minor moment, made only special because I’m pretty sure it was the same lady who cut in line a few days before. I can’t swear. But I’m pretty sure.
I saved her five bucks. She repaid me with a smile, a snowflake in a dreary sky. And in the season in which I foolishly seek out miracles, I think maybe we’re not so broken after all. Hallelujah.