SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 7, 2010

The Boy’s Lost His Rhythm

 

Sometime last year I think it was—a few months ago—I wrote a column in which I mentioned my increasing interest in the rhythms that seem to rule the world. Everything has a rhythm, from the orbits of the planets to the vibrations of subatomic particles, from an individual’s digestive and sleeping patterns to the flip-flopping of dominant political philosophies, popular television genres, and cultural nostalgia. Weather patterns, traffic patterns—even crime and religion have their own rhythms. I use the commonplace rhythms of the masses to determine what time of the day or week I will or will not go to a bar, a grocery store or even outside. My own rhythm, then, involves moving around and between the rhythms of other people.

            In these past months, however, I’ve been forced outside at times chosen by other people. I’ve been seeing a lot of doctors, there was that teaching business, a few other things that have been seriously fucking me up and knocking me off schedule. It’s also been carrying over, so now even when I do something as simple as run some errands at the same time I normally would—those times I’ve determined to be uncluttered by other people—something hasn’t been right. It’s like I’ve lost the beat. Even this column lost its steady weekly beat. I soon discovered that I no longer knew how to maneuver around or even communicate with strangers. Not that this is anything I enjoyed, but sometimes it’s necessary.

            It was early in the morning, and I had to make two stops—the drug store and the grocery store, which are four blocks away and less than half a block apart.

            There had been a fairly heavy snow a few days earlier, and only a small handful of my socially conscious, community activist neighbors had bothered to put that sanctimonious civic pride of theirs to some use. Drop a cigarette butt in the gutter and hooboy, I’m destroying their neighborhood. Ask them to shovel part of a damn sidewalk and they start looking around for a Mexican. But since they don’t like Mexicans lingering about the neighborhood too long, well, there are none to be found, so the sidewalk becomes a well-packed, lumpy ice track.

            That’s neither here nor there, though. I’m used to that. So I walked into the cluttered and poorly-lit drugstore, stepping carefully and slowly so as not to kick any old ladies bent over in the aisles trying to choose a laxative. Once I reached the pharmacy counter in the back, I took my place in line behind a woman who was apparently unsure what kind of prescription her doctor had asked her to get filled. As she tried to recall, the pharmacists were going about their business. When one saw me, she said hello and went to pick up the two bottles I had waiting.

            When the woman in front of me saw what was happening, she whirled on me.

            “Why do you get served before me? I been standin’ here.”

            Now, I figured I probably shouldn’t say something honest, like “because they know me, they know I’ll be finished and gone in twenty seconds, and you’ll be standing here for another goddamn forty-five minutes trying to figure out if it’s your diabetes or toe fungus medication, you batty old cow.” So instead I said, “I really don’t know.”

            “You show up an’ they’re all over you. I show up an’ stand here an’ wait.”

            “Uhh,” I said as I took my prescriptions from the very nice pharmacist and stepped back to leave, the angry old woman still staring at me. Then I felt something under my heel, and another old lady started yelling at me from behind.

            “Ow! That’s my foot! Why did you do that?”

Once again I refrained from asking her the honest question, namely “and why are you standing two fucking inches behind me when I’ve clearly finished my transaction and there’s only one direction for me to go—namely backwards?” Instead, I said “Sorry.”

            Okay, at this point I was a little discombobulated and off-balance. Stereo bitching from a couple of old ladies’ll do that. I found a few other things I needed on the shelves and brought them up to the non-prescription checkout.

            The girl rang me up and gave me the total. It was thirteen dollars and something, so I opened my wallet, counted out a ten and four singles, and handed them to her.

            She counted the bills. Then she counted them again, a look of growing confusion on her face. Finally it struck her.

“Oh,” she said. “One of these singles was folded.” She held up the offending bill. “There’s only thirteen here.”

            “Ah, well,” I said, reaching for my wallet again. “You got me. That’s an old carny scam, see?” (Which it is, by the way, though usually done on a larger scale). It was, I thought, a quick, lighthearted jibe and nothing more. But when I looked up again with the extra dollar, the young woman was staring at me as if I’d just slipped her a hold up note. She wasn’t moving, and something in her eyes told me she was trying to decide whether or not to call the manager and the cops.

            Finally she took my dollar and gave me my change (which I probably should’ve counted). I left the store vowing never to make a joke of any kind with a stranger again. They never laugh.

            These are all terribly minor and pointless things I know, but they were adding up, and I could feel something slipping away from me. I was doing everything I should’ve been doing. Things were easy and efficient and lighthearted, but somehow this was just confounding and enraging everyone I encountered.

            I wanted to head home then, but needed to stop at the grocery store. Thank god it was only half a block away. I’d get what I needed, then go home and lock the door. I was feeling jittery.

            I grabbed the four or five things I needed there and brought them up to the checkout. I have the worst trouble at checkouts lately.

            As I approached an open lane, a man stepped in front of me and began saying something. He was pointing. He seemed very adamant. Although he was speaking English, I had no idea what he was saying. It made no sense, and I couldn’t tell what he was pointing at.

            I nodded, stepped around him, and put my items on the belt.

            The woman rang everything up then asked, “how many bags do you want?”

            “Hmm?” I said, looking up before I registered what she said. “Oh. Whatever’s easiest for you.”

            She put a few things in a bag, then paused again. “Do you want the cheese and the beer together in the same bag?”

            Again I nearly said, “what, are you afraid they’ll fight?” But instead said, “Yeah, that’ll be fine. Sure.”

            In they went together, along with a few other things. She paused yet again.

            “What about bagging the paper towels and the bread together?”

            That was it. I’d had enough of the insanity. I was already feeling like a new immigrant who didn’t quite know how things worked yet. “I just . . . don’t . . . care,” I told her.

            I didn’t want to be rude—I know there are baggers who take great pride in their abilities and god bless them, the retards. But christ, just put the crap in the bag and let me leave.

            She did this eventually, and it was back out onto the icy sidewalks where, suddenly, everybody was going out of their way to block my path. With those shoes on those sidewalks and four bags of groceries in my hands, I was in no condition to try any fancy footwork to get around them.

            So I walked very slowly, and stewed. A block and a half from home I encountered the inevitable—two women, each with a massive stroller, who had chosen the narrowest spot on the block to stop and jabber away like a couple of grackles. At the same time, their obliviousness was only amplified by the obliviousness of their three free range children who were hopping around, chasing each other, and barking like dogs.

I paused, gauged the situation, measured the possibilities, and charged through them with my grocery bags, head down, not caring who got whacked with that sixer.

No one was left crying in my wake, which I found vaguely disappointing. But about ten yards further down the sidewalk, I encountered an elderly man with a graying black lab. They were both just standing there, staring at the women and children. His face showed no emotion. He clearly wanted to continue walking in that direction, but didn’t want to put himself or his dog at risk. He’d clearly lost his rhythm, too, and wasn’t in the mood right then to try and get it back.

            It occurred to me only later that maybe it wasn’t me and the old man. Maybe it was everyone else who’d lost the sense of rhythm necessary to live and function within civilization, and that the old man and myself were still clinging to the ugly beat that no one else heard anymore. But of course if the results are the same, what does it matter?

 

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