I’m pulling into the Price Chopper on Madison Avenue, right? And it’s Saturday evening, right? And I’m just planning to bolt inside, buy a couple bags of Empire apples (accept no substitutes, my friends) and a few other critical items, right? And then head home to the chillenz. So there I am, nosing the car into the P-Chopper lot, when I see this guy crossing in front of me on the sidewalk: heavy-set, maybe 60-65, with a labored gait and distracted expression, wearing a baggy black t-shirt that shrieks one word, billion-point type, all caps:
I am so startled by this question that I almost roll down the window and shout after him: WHY WHAT, SIR? Something prevents me from doing this. Maybe I’m in a hurry; maybe I’m not in a mood to engage with strangers; maybe it’s the look on his face of intense interior dialogue, which suggests he’s got enough on his plate without some weirdo random lady grilling him about his choice of frock. But I instantly regret not asking him, because he and his loudly inquisitive t-shirt haunt me into the supermarket, down the produce aisle, past the cans of crushed tomatoes and all the way into the bakery.
What’s he asking, exactly? Is he positing some philosophical conundrum? WHY ARE WE HERE? Is he pondering imponderables sages have pondered since the dawn of time, such as WHY DO MEN SPIT IN PUBLIC? and WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE? Or is he challenging the souls with whom he crosses paths to question their own beliefs, choices, preferences, foibles, prejudices? WHY do you believe it’s okay to run red lights? WHY do you insist on eating marmalade when everyone else considers it slimy and noxious? WHY do you care so much about celebrity break-ups? Most importantly, WHY is there a booger dangling from your nose?
The funniest thing about this t-shirt, aside from the dead-serious expression of the fellow wearing it, is that I had decided I was all done with WHYs. I was so totally over ’em. Having grappled with the damned squirmy things for the last few years, I had decided — by the time I put the quadrillionth obsessive “final and I mean that (ha ha ha)” edit on my book — that we’re well and truly better off without the suckers, at least when they’re not challenging the behavior of certain elected officials. (WHY can’t Congress get its shit together?)
As a way of coping in the aftermath of life events, WHYs get us nowhere. They keep us stuck in the past. They only spin the wheels inside our aching squeaky crania, keeping our minds fretful and inward-oriented when re-orienting outward is our best salvation. True, we can sit barefoot in our kitchens, sobbing pathetically into our marmalade, but we’re always better off heading outside and talking to strangers — even the distracted ones loping past Price Chopper in cotton loungewear.
And then we’ll be tempted to ask: WHY are you wearing that meddlesome t-shirt? I only wish I had.