I was in a hurry that morning. As I walked through the automatic doors, I pulled a red plastic basket from the stack. It would encourage me to not pick up much beyond the few items I came for. And it would enable me to dodge the other patrons. This store was notorious for shopping cart traffic jams. With only the basket hooked over my arm, I could slip between stopped shopping carts and dart on either side of the center displays to evade oncomers or those obliviously studying the packages on the shelves. I had my tactics down to a system.
I efficiently maneuvered the store aisles, my strides long and quick. As I rounded the produce corner to check out, the only thing in my basket not on my original list was a package of bacon because who can’t use a little more bacon? The weekend was coming, which meant hot breakfast, and we had a cast iron skillet to season.
The lines were long. I would have to wait. I beelined to the express lane. Twelve items or less. I had five. I lifted the flap of my purse to pull out my phone—at least I could use the time by checking my email. Then I recognized the dark head in front of me. I let the flap fall shut.
“Well, fancy meeting you here,” I said.
His head jerked up from the magazine he had been flipping through, and he turned to face me. His face broke into a wide grin. “Well hello there!” The inflection was almost musical. This, I’d learned, was his standard greeting. The level of enthusiasm in his voice could have led me to believe running into me here was the highlight of his day…or maybe week…or life. There was a lot of enthusiasm. He snapped the magazine closed and let it slip back into the rack.
“How ya doin’?” Same musical lilt. It was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. “You were on a trip, right?”
I recounted our road tripping adventures from the last week. He told me about his staycation. He was going out to dinner with his cousin that night. Every comment I made got a laugh and a “I like the way you put that.” I couldn’t help but smile.
Standing there in the grocery store line, catching up with my neighbor, this small town Pennsylvania bred girl felt a little less out of place. Going on a “quick” errand in my childhood hometown often required a little extra buffer time for the random conversations you’d find yourself in. People there made eye contact and struck up conversation much more readily.
As a child, I thought everyone knew my parents—or grandparents—and therefore me. I’d get questions on various facets from my life, and as I was giving the latest update, my eyes would try to memorize any distinctive features so I could ask my mom who they were when I got home.
The cashier scanned and bagged his groceries while we talked. He paid and thanked the man.
“See you around,” I said. And I knew I would. It was hard to be a stranger to someone who lived in your building. It was hard to be a stranger to someone that friendly.
After he left, I turned, still smiling, to the cashier. He was short, young, crew-cut. “Are your neighbors that cheerful?”
He made an expression akin to a grimace and rocked his head slightly back and forth. Noncommittal?
I laughed. “That looks like a polite way of saying no.”
He paused. “I guess I’d have to know my neighbors to know if they were that nice."
"I mean, I don't know their names. I don’t even know if I’d recognize them if I walked up on them in the store.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.