I was trundling a small cart toward the door of the grocery and was about to pass a women in front of me when a man’s behavior caught my eye. It was about 10 a.m. and a sunny day. The man stood facing the open driver’s side door of his older-model SUV, his hands in front of him. Urine splashed onto the ground under the open door, and as we passed him, the man apologized to the woman and me. I pointed my face forward, then said, “That’s what’s called ‘indecent exposure,’” loud enough for the man to hear. “No it ain’t,” the man returned, “ ‘cause you didn’t see nothin.’” As I entered the door of the grocery, I saw the man, zipped and presentable, muttering and moving toward the exit door. I saw the man inside the store, shopping with a woman, and I made a conscious effort to stay ahead of him.
Years ago, when I lived in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, I regularly encountered homeless men watering the weeds and trees in the parks. The men panhandled around the edges of the park across the street from my apartment building and most attempted to convey a friendly, unthreatening attitude. I remember a man spraying the vegetation in front of me, then turning to stretch out a friendly hand to me. “I’m not shaking that hand,” I told him. “I just saw the work you were doing with it.”
A search for the origin of the handshake took me to history.com, which indicated that the practice dates back thousands of years, with the consensus being that the open, weaponless hand was used to show strangers a lack of ill will. The Quakers of the 1700s are believed to have refined the current form of handshake greeting as an alternative to “tipping the hat, or bowing.” I compete in a pool league that asks that good sportsmanship be shown via the handshake at the beginning and end of matches. Having spent some time near the urinals with some of the competitors, I have started to rely on the “fist bump,” a more sanitary method of greeting and congratulating. One man in a pool room shocked me when he came from the men’s room and asked me if I had any hand sanitizer. This request was startling in two ways: That a man in a pool hall would want hand sanitizer, and that the man would think that I had some (which I did).
The members of the advertising department of the store I worked for in St. Louis would occasionally have pitch-in lunches, and the dish brought by one woman was assiduously avoided, for she was legendary in the department for bursting from a stall in the women’s rest room, and briskly marching out the door. She never washed her hands. A friend’s ex-husband is a biologist who once told me a story of the unwrapped mints that used to be offered on the counters of restaurants. Some scientists gathered a sample of the mints from a number of restaurants and tested them. In 100 percent of the samples, the mints were found to be “contaminated with urine.”
Most people’s immune systems are robust enough to overcome the naughty bugs that we transmit to each other, but we have varying degrees of adherence to the disease-preventing practice of hand-washing. While we no longer tip our hats in greeting, and bowing will never come back, each time we “shake on it,” we are committing a leap of faith, one that we used to display when reaching into a bowl of mints.
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