Standing in line at Dollar General. Ahead of me is a very elderly man, who walked in minutes earlier and immediately grabbed a random customer and asked for help finding what he needed (birthday card). He’s shaky as he waits, extremely frail, with one person ahead of him. He asks the cashier if he can use the bathroom and keep his place in line.
“Sure, but I will have to unlock the door for you”, he says to the old man who just grimaces. He has to go NOW he says. The young man behind the counter, in the middle of a transaction, does not know what to do, doesn’t respond.
A girl starts screaming behind me, not a regular scream, but a single squealing note launched in rising intensity. I glance over my shoulder as nonchalantly as possible, and notice that she’s developmentally disabled, her mother desperately tries to get her mask back over her mouth. She doesn’t want to wear the mask, she screams louder, she flaps her arms up and down like a bird. The mother tries to calm her, while palming the white cloth mask in place over her mouth, her struggles make it look like she’s trying to chloroform her. The poor guy in front of me again asks the flustered cashier to use the bathroom, a panic in his voice.
I’m getting stressed out. I imagine how confusing it must be for this young girl to adjust to a scary new world that suddenly requires her to walk around with a mask over her face and not get close to anyone; I think of how it’s a major challenge for this man just to go to the store for a Hallmark card without pissing himself. It’s all too much, I’m anxious to relinquish my place in this humanity sandwich, here in Dollar General.
Then I ask myself: Is this any worse than scrolling through Twitter, or watching a Lexus “December to Remember” commercial? Can I honestly say my environment will greatly improve when I’m sitting in my car alone eating my dollar store lunch of Jack Links and Red Bull?
I take a few deep breaths and try to quell my natural impulse of anxiety by remembering that unpleasant moments like these are at least not full of shit.
I have the luxury of experiencing so much of life’s unpleasantness mediated through screens, but this luxury makes it possible to lose touch with pathos, even — or especially — in the midst of a plague. So much of the world’s estate of terrible things is selectively delivered, politicized, processed to confirm a bias or construct a narrative. But the brutality of reality – from cringe to horror – isn’t partial.
As far as uneasy situations go, this little scene is nothing, only an opportunity to recalibrate, cozy up with abjection, without judgement. Maybe I need even more of it, ugliness not presented to prove a point, or bolster a position, but pure unfiltered abjection: a piss in the sweatpants, my own patheticness, a twisted off head, horseflies in porn… at least I know you’re real.
I don’t want to feel without experience; I don’t want to forget that there is pain, suffering, and tragedy beyond the curated pieces that get framed to manufacture feelings, and not all of it can be alleviated. I feel bombarded by outrage, alarm and news of terrible things, but it’s only the terrible things themselves that I can really trust.