Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Next time I'll throw something

I used to work in a café in a beach town. Some of our customers came in every day, and one of them was called (let’s say) Arlen. He seemed to know all the staff, and we got to meet most of the people in his life. He was so comfortable with us he used to do all his business paperwork while he ate, spreading everything out over the table so it looked like The Little Island of Arlen. He was very fussy about his food requirements, but always friendly, and generally polite. And conversations with him often followed along the chitchatty lines of: “Morning.” “Morning.” “How are you?” “Fine.”

One day I was shopping in an inland town, about an hour’s drive away. This was the town where I’d gone to high school (very unhappily), and it represented, in a way, my old life. I was proud of the fact that I was now living in the hip and groovy beach town in a galaxy far far away. So when, in a newsagency, I looked up from the magazine I was browsing and spotted Arlen on the opposite side of the magazine racks, I had a sudden rush of pleasure in seeing him. He was from my new life, the better life. Knowing him, an out-of-towner, meant I’d moved beyond the old town and I was now like him, an outsider in this strange land. We were outsiders together. (And if you’ve got outsider tendencies yourself, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of this, the miraculous wonder of it.)

“Arlen!” I said. He didn’t look up from his magazine. “Arlen!” I said again. Still no response. I wondered whether to wave my arms about or something, but instead just called out again: “Arlen!” No response again, but it felt like a few other customers were starting to look at me. What should I do? Why couldn’t he hear me? I didn’t want to walk right around the magazine racks - which ran down the length of the shop - because he was right there, only a few metres away. “Arlen!” I said again, louder this time. Still no response. And people were looking at me, I could feel it.

What if he’d seen me walk in and just wanted me to go away? What if he was pretending not to hear, just so he wouldn’t have to look up? What if, what if... I would have left immediately, except these other people were looking at me. I couldn't walk out. They’d think I was an idiot: calling out over and over to someone, and then not even talking to them? No, it was too stupid. I’d gone too far to turn back.

“Hey, Arlen!” I said, loudly, and he looked up. Finally! “Hello!” I said, with a little wave. He looked at me blankly. “Oh,” he said, pausing, probably wondering who the hell I was. “Hello.”

And this is the point where I realised that - despite trying to attract his attention, in full view of other people, at considerable expense to my dignity - it was right here at this point that I realised I had nothing whatsoever to say to him. The only thought in my head had been “Hello”, and I’d used that up already. I nodded at him like an idiot, and looked around the shop. Or something. He just stood there looking at me, I suppose. I don’t remember now. I entirely stopped focusing on him and could see nothing at all except myself: The Idiot. In spotlight! Magnified to hideous superhuman proportions! Face getting hot enough to fry an egg! Oh my God, ohmygodohmygod...

What could I do? “Okay, bye!” I said, and walked stiffly from the shop, hoping it would look like that had been my plan all along. (“No time to tarry, darl! Have a nice day!”)

Back in the café the next working day, it was the same old chitchat: “Morning.” “Morning.” “How are you?” “Fine.”

He didn’t mention it, and neither did I. And that, I think now, was a very good thing.