Today I was at Powell’s, waiting in the “To Sell” book line. For whatever reason, this line is always long, regardless of when I go. Admitted, I don’t go on Monday mid-afternoon, but suffice to say that it’s long most of the time. I’ve been dragging a small bag of books around with me for a couple of weeks. Two, maybe three dozen at most, all tucked into a paper grocery bag, sitting by my feet. There’s a blonde man in front of me, holding a bag, and moving a box and bag that are slightly behind him.
I think nothing of this until I hear a voice. I turn and a short, smallish woman is standing just by my shoulder. She’s looking up at me, an older woman, maybe in her 70s, with badly dyed hair and limp curls. She’s got on a blue jacket, her eyes are rheumy, and she is talking. I’m confused because she wasn’t there and then she was and I have no context for her. After a few seconds, I grasp that Blonde Guy is saving her spot (the bag and box he’s been tugging along are hers), but she’s coming back with a whole handtruck of boxes before her turn comes up.
I say nothing, just look at her, until she finally says “never mind.” I say “okay” and she scuttles away. I’m flustered and irritated. There’s a guy with a handtruck full of boxes in line in front of Blonde Guy, he finally gets his turn and is now unstacking and unpacking all those books. The line behind me, which consisted of no one for a few minutes, is now almost a dozen people long. And this woman has given warning that Blonde Guy is holding her place in line, but that she’s on her way back with a big fucking pile of books.
I’m now indignant, edging on angry. This is not okay. Okay is if she came back and picked up the bag and the box and took the spot in line. I’d be fine with that. Not okay is stealthily reappearing with a load that is going to significantly impact the wait times of everyon in line. Plus, it’s a dick move. It’s like asking someone to hold your place in line for tickets, then you show up with 10 other people who also all need to buy tickets. It’s a breach of the social contract of line etiquette.
We’re getting closer to the registers, Blonde Guy is next in line, then the currently ownerless bag and box, then me. I ask Blonde Guy and Woman Behind Me for advice. “What is acceptable line etiquette?” I ask “Why am I obligated to honor a spot for an absent person when I was never asked in the first place?” Blonde Guy says, apologetically “Since the place is behind me, I think it’s up to you to decide.” Woman Behind Me says “There’s a limit to kindness,” and gives me a sympathetic look.
My heart is pounding harder now, adrenaline threading its way through my blood. I’m unhappy about the whole thing, and hoping fervently that my turn comes before Handcart Lady comes back. Secretly, some part of me wants the confrontation,wants to openly say “No. You don’t get to jump back in line with an enormous, time-consuming pile of books that you should have just brought with you and gotten all into line at the same time. Just no.” That part is small, though, and most of me wants to avoid the potential conflict.
Unfortunately, she shows up the second that Blonde Guy gets called to the register. The timing is uncanny, but there she is, a tiny woman in a blue coat pushing the promised handcart, loaded with boxes. Fuck me. Now I either let her have her way, or look like a total asshole and tell her no. I decide to take the asshole route, but to be as polite as I can manage, so I take a deep breath and step forward, around her.
She starts to pull the handcart in front of me, saying “these are my things, he was holding the space for me,” and I say “No, I don’t think it’s okay for you to show back up with a big stack of boxes and jump in line.” Blonde Guy looks at her aplogetically and says “it’s not on me because you aren’t in front of me” and Woman Behind Me says “there’s a limit to kindness.” I say “I don’t agree that you get to keep a space you didn’t wait in. It would be okay if you just had these two containers, but not all this other stuff.”
She is shocked and angry and, I think, appalled at my behavior. Who does this? Who says “No” when you say someone has been saving your spot in line? Who says “I don’t agree and I won’t go along?” Assholes, that’s who. Assholes like me, who are willing to argue a tiny old lady out of her place in line. I don’t see myself that way, but it seems likely that she and many other people in line do.
I try to step forward and she tries to block me, sort of, pulling the handtruck over slightly. I ignore her attempt, squeeze past, and step to the front of the line. She exclaims loudly, and angrily “Oh my god, I don’t believe this!” but I ignore her and stand, waiting for the next register to open. I am turned sideways, from stepping around her, and she’s glaring at me, furious. “Where are you from?” she demands. I have no idea why she would ask such a question, why it would be relevant, and I say nothing.
She continues glaring, accusing, and the rest of the people in line shuffle uncomfortably. I am well aware of what it looks like. I’m big, younger than her, with a small bag. She’s small, older, with giant stack of boxes. To all appearances, I’m bullying an elder and showing no remorse, which makes me a dick. Of course, she’s not being harmed at all, except by having her will thwarted, but I don’t think anyone but me could give any fucks about that.
When I remain silent, she continues ranting. “I think you’re making some assumptions about me….my husband is terminally ill with cancer and I left him alone. Today is the only day I have to do this…” Her eyes, already watery, look slightly more weepy, and she’s quite angry and unhappy. I am unmoved, although the adrenaline is making my face hot and heart thump even more strongly. She’s attempting emotional blackmail, but it will never work on me, and only makes me more resolute.
If her story is true and her husband is dying of cancer, that is a sad circumstance and I’m sympathetic to her. But I’m not changing my mind and, thankfully, an employee indicates that a register is now open. I flee to the register, the guy asks me what happened, and I give him a very short version. I am sorry for her – she is obviously distressed about something – maybe being mad at me will give her a few minutes distraction from harder issues.
I can’t say why I was so unwilling to go along, and let an old lady have her way, but I think it had to do with her sense of entitlement. She felt that because she’d made some agreement with Blonde Guy, that everyone else was bound to honor it, regardless of what it truly entailed – a much longer wait than anyone who saw the bag and box would have expected. But maybe it was because I didn’t want to wait in line a moment longer, maybe it was the final resting place of holiday stress and loneliness, of the work chaos of the last three months, or maybe I am just sometimes a dick.
What I know is that it took less than 10 minutes for me to be done and walking away, and she was finally having to stand in line for herself, waiting for a register.