Other People's Haircuts
Small, random, seemingly meaningless acts of goodwill or courtesy are, to the mentally ill, of paramount importance in assessing the moral posture of strangers.
Friday, 2008-07-04 | NPC Encounters
...it is not for nothing that the masses are called the masses.
Benign mental illness--the kind that causes the sufferer to become impaired by confusion or uncontrollable emotion only about 20% of the time--has few obvious tells.
Chief among these is the unprecedented and unprompted declaration "you're welcome."
It is my habit to leave my building through the rear exit. I ride the freight elevator down, watching through the accordion lattice of retractable wrought iron gates as eight floors roll up like a roll of developed film being reeled back into its flavescent cylindrical container, and exit through a hollow steel security door into the sweet putrescent smell of fish food and fermented milk. From there, it's a scant 15 paces over the badly fractured patchwork of concrete and asphalt--the creamy brown colloid of rotting garbage and rainwater glistening up at me with the cream-and-sugar brown placidity of an overhead advertisement for milk chocolate candy from the uncannily circular potholes that cluster together in the alley like trackmarks on a junkie's forearm--to Granville Avenue where I can walk west for one block if I want the Red line and east for two blocks if I want the rustic geometry of the man made rock cascades that conceal the east-facing basement wall of the apartment building that would seem to jut too precariously out over the water if not for the aesthetic justification provided by this hastily arranged and haphazardly cut installation of mailbox-sized fragments of limestone and concrete.
But I took the front door this morning. And, in so doing, encountered a small traffic jam in the vestibule.
Comcast has been running cable from the drop to the buildings on the 1000 block of Granville all week and, apparently, running behind schedule: cable television is hardly an emergency worthy of one's Fourth of July unless one is behind a substantial "8" ball.
In addition to two impossibly sweaty red-shirted Comcast cable fishers of South American descent with the close-cropped short black hair and squat bearing one frequently notices in laborers belonging to their ancient race who were attempting ingression, there was a remarkably nondescript older gentleman of no particular ethnicity dressed in white khakis and a white shirt who wore black rimmed glasses and a sun-tanned (as opposed to booth- or bottle-tanned) man who wore large black sunglasses, a sleeveless black t-shirt and repulsively short shorts who had, evidently, just barely squeezed himself and his mountain bike through the vestibular bottle neck only seconds prior to my arrival.
The man in the khakis flattened himself against the western wall and deferred to the Comcast technicians who, as they passed him, nodding their heads almost imperceptibly, expressed the subtlest possible gratitude to his deference.
I had arrived at the door by this time and, as I passed the incoming red-shirts, got in file behind the older guy in the glasses. Having caught the innermost door as the Comcast grunts let it swing shut, he next caught the outermost door before it swung closed. I took that door from him as he moved forward and then took the outermost door as he made his way to the street.
I turned west towards the rocks and he turned east towards the Red line. I made it about 10 paces from the door when, as I was just becoming absorbed in the ginger probing of the pocket of my fashionably well-worn black Levis for my Zippo, I heard the magic words: "you're welcome".
The words are "magic", of course, if and only if they are intended to remind someone of his petulance and ungrateful bearing after you've done him what you consider to have been a favor. They're doubly magic if you have somehow inconvenienced yourself en route to this expression of your magnanimity.
I turned--almost totally involuntarily--and saw that he had screwed his face up in an expression of contempt that is generally found on the faces of grade school children when confronted with particularly crisp vegetables.
"A ha", I said to myself as I continued my westward walk, "I knew there was something that just wasn't right about that guy."
For who, excepting a person wholly at odds with the business of life and the reality we agree to share, could hold a complete stranger at moral or ethical fault for having followed him through two doors and then failing to acknowledge the fact?
I felt the sun on my shoulders and opened my nostrils wide to accommodate the sweet milky reek of the alley.