May 6, 2012


Today I did something I don't think I've ever done before.

I yelled at some people in a public place.

People I don't even know.

I think I was more shocked than the people I yelled at. It made me start to wonder if I'm turning into that angry old man who sends soup back at a deli. Is this how that begins? Just how do we transition to being difficult and crotchety?

Is it a gradual process? Or do we just wake up one day crotchety?

This is not at all like me. Or at least it hasn't been. I don't think I was crotchety yesterday.

I usually speak in a voice so quiet that people have a hard time hearing me. And I'm not the sort to chat up strangers easily, except as situations require. I make idle conversation in elevators, as the law requires, but other than that, I pretty much leave strangers alone.

I think today's yelling began at the crossing of the river.

I live near the river that was responsible for bringing hordes of people from all over the world to California about 160 years ago. Gold was discovered in the river, not too far from here, and the rest is fairly well-documented history.

A small village grew up on my side of the river, not too long after they found gold. And things have changed surprisingly slowly hereabouts since then. There are more people and houses now, but the place still has a casual and rural feel to it. There are small, meandering one-lane streets that lead to no place in particular. Most of those streets have no sidewalks. And there are chickens.

The chickens are the subject for another post, but the curious part is that the chickens are independent, belong to no one, answer to no one, go wherever they please, and yell at whomever they want to. Maybe I've become like our chickens.

Well, to get to where I ended up yelling in public at people I don't even know, I had to cross the river. And crossing that river is like travelling forward in time 150 years.

The other side of the river is much lower in elevation, prone to flooding, and over time had become a swampy, unsavory  morass of garbage dumps and junkyards. Until about 35 years ago, when urban planners, right-minded citizens, and greedy land grabbers decided it would be in their best interests if they cleaned the place up.

Which they did in a spectacular way.

They created one of the cleanest places you would ever want to see. It is now a model of model communities. Where garbage dumps and junkyards had been, arose a planned community where every last blade of grass is professionally managed and manicured. The people who live there now are well-manicured, too. Their dogs are manicured. Their houses are manicured. Their lawns and bushes and trees and gardens are manicured. You may not park a car on any of their manicured streets between the hours of twelve and six in the morning just so unmanicured vehicles will not start accumulating there.

It is all a bit surreal in an eerie and slightly frightening Tim Burton kind of way.

But it makes a great destination if you walk or jog for exercise, as all of those manicured streets are conducive to peacefully walking or jogging. And inevitably, there is a well-manicured shopping center there with a well-manicured Starbucks where all of the well-manicured people congregate. I say congregate because there are no churches there and I think the Starbucks serves as the church of the well-manicured people. At least, that's where they all go on Sunday mornings.

Call me perverse, but I like watching the well-manicured people in their well-manicured biking and jogging clothes with their manicured dogs and manicured children trying to impress one another in whatever well-manicured ways they can think of.

It's become a regular stop on my exercise route and I love going there with my wife for a cup of tea (has anyone noticed that Starbucks coffee isn't very good?) just to watch the show of manicured people in full display.

Well, I found myself in line with a throng of well-manicured people, waiting to order my cup of organically grown, artisanally brewed, and moderately overpriced tea, when the cashier called out for the next person in line to approach the altar - uh, I mean the register.

And it was at that moment that I came literally face to face with a cold, hard fact about the well-manicured people that I had until then found somewhat harmless and amusing.

The well-manicured people live in their own little world. They seem to recognize only themselves. Their own well-being is all that seems to matter to them. There may be other people on the planet, but the wants and needs and rights of those people do not seem to matter at all to the well-manicured people.

A knot of six or eight well-manicured people completely filled the space between me and the order taker (at a Starbucks, there may be half a dozen scurrying figures behind the counter, but only one is the designated order taker). The order taker called for the next in line, but none of the six or eight well-manicured responded. The order taker raised her voice and tried again. Again, no response.

None of these six or eight well-manicured people was actually in line to place an order. This was just a convenient place for them to gather to chat or text or browse the internet on their iPads or to model the latest in trendy designer jogging wear.

I finally realized that I was the next in line and so I said to three or four of the well-manicured people closest to me, "Are you in line?" I sort of already knew the answer to that, but this was my way of subtly suggesting that they unblock the way for those of us who were actually in line.

From the slack-jawed well-manicured people there was like, blankness, totally.

So I uncharacteristically raised my voice a notch and tried again. "Are You In Line?"

The well-manicured were like so not responding.

So it happened.

Not used to raising my voice, I may have overdone it.

"ARE     YOU     IN     LINE    ?????????"

echoed loudly through the already buzzing Starbucks.

A sudden rapt silence filled the Starbucks.

In the line that was not a line but a gathering of the well-manicured, conversations, texting, and iPadding stopped cold. Slackened jaws tightened. Eyes shot in my direction.

It was as if I had dropped my pants in public.

It was as if I'd shouted, "Fire!" in an eight-screen Dolby surround-sound Multiplex.

It was as if I had yelled, "There is no Jesus" at a Republican fund-raising event.

To add to the drama of the moment, I also had to physically push my way through the throng to get up to the register, as most of the slack-jawed, well-manicured people still weren't catching on that there were unmanicured people waiting in line, waiting to be in the space that they had filled up.

Somehow, I managed to place my order for a Grande mug of organic, herbal tea and a slice of banana walnut bread, as the usual buzz returned to the Starbucks.

But something had changed in me. I felt like I had become the angry old man who sends soup back at a deli. The world had become populated with the self-obsessed and the slack-jawed and the clueless, and I was the outsider.

Is it me? Has anyone else noticed that the self-obsessed and the slack-jawed and the clueless seem to be everywhere?

Or am I just getting old and crotchety?