The line at the grocer’s customer service counter had four people in it, and I was the third. The man being served by the store’s representative had a small exchange with the woman behind him. She turned away from him, and toward me. I purposely chose a vague point in the middle distance to stare at; the woman kept her face pointed at me. The man at the front of the line finished his business, and as I turned toward the counter, the glaring woman rolled her eyes and turned away from me. Her forms were incomplete — she wanted to send money via Western Union — and the clerk looked toward me. I explained that I wanted to exchange broken merchandise, and the clerk took my receipt and the merch. Meanwhile, the woman in front of me had turned up the wattage on her glare.
One of my college professors at Indiana University Southeast introduced me to the phrase “esprit de l’escalier.” This French term translates, loosely, as “staircase wit; the repartée you think of on the way home,” or the witty rejoinder that occurs to you on your walk down the steps. Many of us have moments, interactions where we later say to ourselves, “I wish I’d said (something) to them/him/her…” I’ve had many of those moments, but on this day, at the grocer, I stood at the top of the staircase and asked the glaring woman, “Do you hate the world, or just me, specifically?” The blaze in the woman’s eyes softened. “You, specifically,” she replied. “You’re standing too close to me.” Having dumped the ballast of empathy and compassion, my ship of anger took the bone in its teeth and cleaved the waves. “Well, you were giving me the stink-eye when I was far behind you,” I snapped. Later, in the parking lot of the store, the man who had preceded me in line pulled his car toward me, and said something uncomplimentary about the woman and his own interaction with her. A frisson of fury sparked in me and I said something unkind about the woman.
I’d like to believe that some innate kindness in me makes me pause when opportunities arise that give me room to squeeze in some nastiness. I won’t concede to slow-wittedness, and I have no lack of sarcastic rejoinders available for customization. Long ago, a man from Boston mocked my pronunciation of a word, and I became legendary at the Marble Hill Nuclear Power Plant for my response: “I am the master of the language, and any error that I might make becomes a part of the popular lexicon.” But the woman who blocked the street in front of my apartment by leaving her running car to chase her dog, who implied that I was traveling in the wrong direction — “It’s a one-way street” — did not get the response that I crafted after she was gone: “Are you the street commissioner? It was a two-way street when I left ten minutes ago.”
People have been known to applaud someone who “says what he thinks,” someone who kicks over the establishment applecart and thumbs his nose at convention. I’ve been sent to the corporate principal’s office for having questioned the conventional practice of discrimination in small loan lending, and discrimination — again — in the selection of models for advertising projects, but I am proud of having thrown myself on those particular grenades. But the lady in the grocery store did nothing damaging to me. She was did not deserve such an acerbic response from me.
I really do wish that I had not said that.
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