Last weekend at the newly refurbished JCrew — it looks beautiful, by the way — I got into a verbal confrontation with another customer. This surprised me since I’m generally a cheerful person, the kind of cliché smiling, happy-for-no-particular-reason American that Europeans and Michael Moore have accused of being mentally deficient (though, if I may be so immodest, I’m reasonably intelligent). Maybe I was born with high levels of serotonin.
Though I do have my pet peeves: traffic, heights, airplane trips that exceed eight hours. And people who don’t accept their place on line.
The latter created the problem at JCrew. I was standing on line with maybe two or three people in front of and behind me. Two of the three registers were open. As we were waiting, two French women walked up to the counter and put their items down in front of the empty third register. If I were a cat, this is the moment my tail with fluff up, and I’d hiss. Instead, I turned to the person behind me on line.
“Did she just cut the line?” I asked.
I can’t remember exactly how the person responded, but I think it was something like, “I don’t know, but she’s been doing that through the whole store.”
The French woman was of impressive stature, certainly a head taller than I am and speaking in a loud, authoritative voice.
“Excuse me,” I said, also loudly. “There’s a line.”
She turned immediately to glare at me and said, “I know there’s a line. You are being very aggressive.” She looked really enraged, and this kind of surprised me.
The conversation didn’t progress much from there. I said, “No, I’m not,” and she said, “Yes, you are.”
Then the sales clerk called me to the register, and the French customer noted that I was being rung up, and there was another register, and I said, “It’s not just me, there’s a whole line of people who are waiting their turn.” Then I don’t remember what she said, something about how the register she’d plopped her stuff on was empty, and I shouldn’t say anything. And I said, “I’ll say whatever I want.”
Really sophisticated, world-changing stuff.
“Don’t worry,” the clerk whispered. “I knew you were next.”
I shrugged. “It’s not just about me.” And it really isn’t.
When I become impatient because I’ve been sitting in traffic or in a cramped airline seat for 10 hours, that’s my problem. I can’t blame it on the lack of endorphins being released because I’m stuck in a sedentary position. The responsibility falls squarely on me to be patient. But maintaining order is a shared responsibility.
Maybe I’m over thinking this, but isn’t forming an orderly line emblematic of this responsibility we have to each other, one very small but still significant way we accept our individual role in maintaining the health of the social body? Ideally, we shouldn’t need a sales clerk to keep us in line (literally and figuratively). But of course, we do. This is why we form governments and pass laws—because we apparently need external authorities to keep our individual interests in check.
In the case of my little shopping scuffle, I have to admit that speaking up didn’t make much of a difference, other than generating a very silly exchange of words. Should I have simply kept my mouth shut and let the situation sort itself out? There are real problems in our world, after all, and getting cut in line isn’t one of them. On the other hand, I worry that keeping quiet about the small things cultivates overall complacence, the feeling that others will step in to correct a problem, whether large or small.