the question

Lately, I’m not sure why, I’ve been asking cashiers and other folks how their day is going. Nothing more complicated than that, just:

Me: Hey.

Them: Hey.

Me: Here’s my milk card.

Them: Thanks.

Me: How’s your day going?

I started doing this because “How are you?” was feeling insufficient. Because everyone says that without expecting or even wanting an answer, using it instead as a blandly interrogative substitute for “hello” that translates as I ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRESENCE, RANDOM PERSON, BUT NOT IN ANY WAY THAT IMPLIES I MIGHT ACTUALLY GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU. We all say this knowing that’s what it means, but we say it anyway. We feel like the social order demands we say SOMETHING, we make SOME lame effort at congeniality and politeness to strangers, at least those strangers who aren’t ignoring us and listening to some twee alt-folk band on their ear buds or air pods or whatever latest New Thing has been meticulously engineered to deafen us.

But, I dunno, saying “How are you?” without meaning it always depressed me, maybe because I ask questions for a living and genuinely look forward to the answer. And so, instead, I began asking people about their day. It was an easy switch, only two added syllables and no real alteration in meaning — just another way of saying the same thing, but in a manner that suggested I might actually want to hear a reply.

And wouldn’t you know it, people answer.

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Busy! So many folks coming in today to stock up for (Name Religious or Secular Holiday)!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Went really fast! Almost over! I’m outta here in (checks clock) 18 minutes and 36 seconds! Then I’m getting a puppy!

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Oooooh, man, this woman was just in here yelling. Right here. At all of us. I’m like, I don’t even know why. I tell you, sometimes people are CRAZY.

-or-

Me: How’s your day going?

Them: Long. Really long. Really, really, really, really long. (Blinks slowly.) Long.

I love these little interactions. They’re brief but meaningful in a way that doesn’t suggest the start of a lifelong relationship (OH MY GOD YOU ARE THE ONE) but merely a simple human interaction between two nobodies who cross paths in the course of a day and briefly become somebodies to each other. And that’s not nothing. I fact, sometimes it’s a lot.

Not so long ago, in a city not so far away, I was having a really crappy day. No we need to go into it in any great detail; it stank, I was feeling sorry for myself, and that’s about it.

I had discharged copious amounts of snot into my pillow when, fed up with this scenario, I went out for a walk. A long walk. Five miles, in all. In the middle of it I paused outside a used bookstore, thumbed through a $1 copy of “Othello” (OH YAH, SO THIS’LL CHEER ME UP) and brought it inside to purchase. As the lady at the register rang me up, I popped out with my usual question.

Me: How’s your day going?

Lady: You don’t want to know. (Pause.) How’s your day going?

Me: You don’t want to know.

Lady: You, too?? (Shakes head.) It seems like everyone I talk to is having an awful day! There must be something going on astrologically to explain it! Because it’s a total shitstorm! Ha ha ha!

Me: Ha ha ha! That must be it!

Lady: Yes, that must be it! Ha ha ha!

Me: Totally!

Lady: Yes, totally!

Me: May your day improve!

Lady: Yours, too!

And in fact, it already had. Just by exchanging shitstorm confessions with a stranger at a bookstore — just by hearing the term “shitstorm” uttered in a bookstore — my mood had taken a turn for the better. I felt marginally less crappy, marginally more human, and so, I’m guessing, did she.

So I have to ask: How’s your day going?