woman walks into a sandwich shop

sad-smiley-bread

Someday last week, somewhere in the mid-Hudson Valley, I had a bizarre exchange with a total stranger. This happens to me on occasion. You’d think, by now, I’d be used to it.

But this last time was different.  This last time haunted me: the woman, her meltdown, the two young men in the shop with us that day.

She was somehow so vulnerable in the extremis of her pain, somehow so broken in her rage. The fellow who accompanied her called her by name in his efforts to calm her, but I won’t repeat it here. I won’t identify the sandwich shop where the incident took place, and I won’t specify the locale. It happened. It truly happened. Let’s leave it at that.

It happened when I walked in to buy two subs. The shop was empty except for one employee, a young man with brown skin, a gentle manner and a light accent of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin. I gave him my order: Two sandwiches, please. Turkey, bacon, lettuce, Swiss cheese, tomatoes, red peppers, ranch.

As he assembled them, the young woman in question entered with her companion. The employee spoke with them, took their order, then turned back to me to finish and ring me up.

“I’m really thirsty,” the young woman declared with sudden urgency. “Can I have a cup?”

He looked up. “I’m sorry?”

“A cup,” she said. “A cup. A cup.”

“A cup? What kind of a — ”

“A CUP,” she repeated. “A CUP? Do you know what A CUP is? Have you never heard of A CUP?”

Saying nothing, he reached for a large paper soda cup.

“Are you the only person working here today? Is anyone else here?”

Still saying nothing, he handed her the cup. This failed to placate her. She started shouting.

“I said, IS ANYONE ELSE WORKING HERE TODAY, OR IS IT JUST YOU? Are you alone here? Are you IT? Is NO ONE ELSE HERE?”

That’s when I said: Hey. Hey. Give the guy a break. He just didn’t know what kind of cup you wanted.

Startled to hear from an outsider, she shot me a glance filled with acid.

She said: Mind your own business!

I said: If you’re rude to someone in front of me, it is my business. This is a public place. The guy just works here. Leave him alone.

She said: You’re not my mother! My mother is dead! Mind your own business!

What I should have said: I’m sorry your mother is gone, but you still have no right to treat this guy badly.

What I actually said: I have a dead mother, too. And my dead mother taught me to speak up when I hear someone being treated with disrespect.

Immediately I recognized this as a mistake. I should not have countered her Dead Mother with my Dead Mother, as Dead Mothers, once invoked, have a way of ramping up any conversation. And it did indeed ramp up. The young woman went completely ballistic, flailing her arms, shouting, spewing F-word upon F-word upon F-word while I howled CALM DOWN CALM DOWN CALM DOWN and made repeated “time-out” gestures like some ineffectual and somewhat desperate hockey referee.

I thought: Shit! What did I do?! She’s totally lost it!

I thought: Shit! How can I stop this?!

Then I thought: Shit! What IS it with me and total strangers!?!

Meanwhile, the young man with her —  friend, boyfriend or brother, I have no idea — looked pained and exhausted, as though he’d been through this way too many times before. He spoke her name tenderly, knowingly, urging her to leave. “Let’s go. Come on, let’s go, let’s go,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy.

But she kept at it. More flailing and shouting. More F-words.  I don’t recall the exact substance of her complaints, but the gist of it was unhinged, toxic outrage at being judged — by the world, by anyone, by me. I had no right. How dare I. She didn’t need this. Who was I to say. Et cetera.

Only when she slammed the paper soda cup onto the floor did I realize it was filled with ice. For a split second, the four of us — we two ladies, the employee, the friend — paused and stared as the scattered cubes shushed across the floor. Then the young fellow took the woman by the arm, uttered one more urgent “come on,” and they were gone.

That’s when another woman entered the store. “What happened?,” she asked, picking up the cup. We told her. She asked if I was all right. Yes, I said, and we all looked down at my shaking hands.

“Do you want me to call the police?” asked the employee.

No, I said.

“Are you sure?”

Yes, I said. I thought: That would ruin her day and maybe her life. And she didn’t hurt me. She didn’t even touch me. She only swore and fell apart.

I regarded the young sandwich-builder before me. He was utterly poised, calm and quiet. Not a peep from him throughout the whole ordeal. Not a flash of anger.

I said: I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I said: I didn’t mean to create such a scene — to do this to you in your workplace. I only meant to tell her she shouldn’t be rude to you.

Again I said: I’m so sorry.

He shook his head. “I work here, so I couldn’t really say anything. It’s my job,” he said, and I felt an instant flood of sympathy for him, too. I wondered how often customers were rude to him for indiscernible reasons, and how often he stifled the urge to talk back.

Then he shot me a look of quiet bafflement and sorrow. “Some people,” he said, shaking his head once more. “Some people just don’t respect their elders.”

At that I almost burst out laughing. The kid was talking about me. I was an elder. Of course! The white-haired lady assailed with F-bombs by the obstreperous youngster!  In his country and culture of origin, such a scene would be unthinkable and appalling — far worse than the woman’s rudeness to him was her rudeness to me, at least in this young man’s view.

I wanted to hug him. Instead I asked his name. I said thank you, goodbye and God bless you. And I left with my turkey sandwiches.

Afterward, I replayed the episode over and over in my mind. I wondered what had motivated the woman’s short fuse and incivility. Was it the man’s race? His (presumed) religion or immigration status? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and maybe I was, too. Maybe this woman had had an absolutely, positively shitty day. Maybe she’d been fired from her job, ditched by her boyfriend or — who knows —  ripped to a million little pieces by a total stranger in public. Maybe her mother had, in fact, just died.

I don’t know. But I know she isn’t having an easy time of things, whoever she is, and I also know her name. I know the sandwich man’s name. In a strange way I can’t quite understand, much less explain, I feel a bond with them both, having shared a moment of plain, painful, unfiltered humanity that was stripped of all protective layers. In that one volatile moment, we were naked together. Defenseless. And in our defenselessness lay an odd sort of intimacy.

Sometimes I think this is the challenge and calling of life: to witness each other at our worst, and to do our best regardless.

So I feel close to those people that day. I always will.  Once total strangers, they’re known to me now.  They mean something. They matter. I can’t shake them off, I don’t expect to shake them off, and I won’t try.

But I am never, ever, ever setting foot in that sandwich shop again.

 

riding the waves

News flash: I ate a fish sandwich in Michigan this weekend.

I had just given a talk at a suicide awareness event on the wide and beautiful shores of Lake Huron, and afterward, feeling reflective, I’d gone back to my bed-and-breakfast to do some writing. But the day was too beautiful, the lure of late summer too sweet, and my itchy Self was too restless to sit still. Self wanted to go for a walk in that state park up the road. Then maybe go for a swim. Then go into the town of Caseville to top off the tank with gasoline. Then get a sandwich. Then see if I could find a pocket of halfway-decent cell service and call my sister-in-law to wish her a happy birthday.

Self said: Let’s do it, girlfriend. Come on. Get up off your ass.

I replied: Okay. But I should probably bring a raincoat.

Self said: No, dummy, you don’t need a raincoat.

So I drove to the state park, parked my little blue rental car and set off for my walk, passing many happy campers along the way. As I walked, it began to rain. Then it began to rain some more. Then some more. Soon I was soaked through.

Self said: You’re already wet. Why don’t you go for that swim, chica?blue-ocean-waves

I thought this was a fine idea, so I crossed the road to the beach. From the top of the stairs, I could see a little group of teenagers frolicking in the waves under a threatening sky. It rained harder. The wind kicked up. I thought: Dark clouds. That’s not good. Self then accused me of being a lame-ass gutless sissy, so what was I to do? I had no choice but to strip off my shorts and t-shirt and swim out into the cresting water.

That’s when I started thinking deep thoughts. Which I should never, ever do. Normally when it happens, I call my brother Danny, but A) I didn’t have my phone on me, and B) I was swimming.

I thought: Waves. Yes. This is my fate. I am lashed and tossed by the fickle undulations of life. Alone!

I thought: I am capable. I am strong. I can ride each wave as it swells. Alone!

I thought: Perhaps I am called to drift thusly on this peaking sea of happenstance and hardship. Alone! Alone! Alone!

At which point Self interrupted, howling: WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT UP WITH THE WHINY EXISTENTIALIST GARBAGE? IT’S SO CLICHÉ!

Self continued: ALSO, DID YOU SERIOUSLY JUST USE THE WORD “THUSLY”?

Self concluded thusly: IF I WANTED TO HEAR SHITTY POETRY, I’D WRITE SOME MYSELF AND PERFORM IT AT A SLAM!

Which woke me from my reverie. I suddenly realized that the wind had whipped into something shy of gale-like force, the rain was horizontal, and my shorts were flying down the beach as though escaping years of torment under my regime. I do not believe I was ever in any actual danger. Not in the sense of, you know, dying. Nevertheless, I had clearly incurred the wrath of God and/or Nature, and I raced out of that lake as fast as my flapping middle-aged-lady limbs could muster. After retrieving my liberated shorts, I dressed my wet Self in my wet clothes and drove my little blue rental into Caseville to get gasoline and a sandwich.

There I found a tiny two-pump station, the kind that requires you to go inside, speak to a human being and pay for your gas before you pump it. I was saturated. My long hair was in a crazed Medusa tangle. I went in, grabbed a bottle of water, brought it up to the counter and asked for 10 bucks’ worth of gas.

The man at checkout gave me a deeply questioning look. As if to say: WTF?

Umm, I went for a walk, I said. And it started to rain. And, umm, I swam.

The man’s questioning look gave way to shock. “YOU WENT SWIMMING?!!,” he asked. “IN THIS?!??”

Umm, yes.

ALONE?!?!?!?!?”

Yes, I said. Alone.

There were a few teenagers down there too, I quickly added, as though this were the equivalent of being guarded by a squad of muscular Navy SEALS.

He gave me a look of concern cut with bafflement. And in that moment, I saw myself as he saw me: as a slightly unhinged eccentric dripping the contents of Lake Huron onto the floor, shorts splotched with sand, hair spazzed in a wild gray nimbus.

Self remarked: You look sooooo together right now.

I replied: Thanks!

And in that moment, I remembered to ask about the sandwich. Where to get one?

“Well,” said the man, “if I weren’t working, I’d tell you to come to my house, and I’d make you one.” He smiled. It didn’t quite erase the bafflement and concern, but it came close.

I smiled back. We chit-chatted some more. I told him I was there to give a talk, though I didn’t say what or where or for whom. For some reason he responded to this news with a horrified DON’T TELL ME YOU’RE A PSYCHOLOGIST, and when I said “no,” he gave me a cheerful fist-bump. I said goodbye, pumped my 10 bucks’ worth of gas, then went off to buy a fried pollock sandwich with a cup of broccoli soup.

Self and I ate them both. I called my sister-in-law to wish her a happy birthday, and I didn’t feel alone. No bad poetry resulted.

the need to be heard

At work this morning, I found a couple of long, strange voicemails from a woman in a hospital. Her name was M. She introduced herself as though I knew her, mentioned a story I’d written, then launched into a monologue of startling range, intensity, articulateness,  bold-faced bizarrerie and righteous anger. The first message alone was four minutes long. It was so odd, touched on so many issues and sounded so desperately urgent that I started taking notes at the computer. I’m not sure why. It was singular in its weirdness, unnerving in its distress, and it felt somehow important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In her outrage, she tacked from the Clintons to EpiPen pricing to Obama to Biden to a few more politicians whose names I couldn’t make out, and she talked about the need to drug-test all of them. I could hear the hubbub of hospital workers behind her; she paused, at one point, to ask one of them a question. Then M invited me to come and spend the weekend with her. “Lots of heads are gonna roll,” she promised.

She talked about lawyers and doctors, and the importance of honesty for both. She talked about China and psychiatry. “Joy to the world, singing and dancing,” she proclaimed, I suspect with irony, then said of the hospital: “If you come in, you don’t get out.” She then ranted against the med students for a while. Can’t trust them to take her blood pressure, she complained. They’re always experimenting.

This went on and on and on. It clearly had nothing to do with me; I was just a random and distant sounding board. The woman simply happened to pick up a copy of the paper. She simply happened to read my story. She simply happened to get to the phone number at the bottom of it, and she simply found herself in close proximity to a telephone. She needed to speak; the fact that I didn’t pick up didn’t matter. What mattered was the crashing torrent of words banked inside her and their crushing need to escape.

After listening to them, I felt sobered by M’s plight. I read back some of her comments and laughed a little, but they were laughs of discomfiture.  It all cut too close to home. I’ve loved and lost too many people altered by depression, anxiety, paranoia and meds, people of presence and intellect and light who slipped into the darkness when life and its capricious mysteries did a number on their minds. They were sane, and then they weren’t. Such darkness can lurk around the bend for any of us, really.

That ranting lady on my voicemail was someone’s altered loved one, a person once lucid and now lost in some dim corridor. She sounded educated, persuasive, charismatic. She was a woman of substance. She had done things. She had known things. She was used to being heard. At some point, she stopped being heard, a victim of life and a system that too often fails to listen to those in pain. But she still needed to speak — who doesn’t? Aren’t we all fighting off loneliness, praying for someone to hear us? So she called up a number she found in the newspaper, and she talked, and she talked, and she talked. All I could do was listen.

don’t talk turkey to me

What I’m about to tell you actually happened. It did! I have photographic proof! Also, I have witnesses! Yes! A kind lady in the Times Union cafeteria witnessed the entire thing, as did similarly kind colleague in the newsroom, and I would, in fact, refer to them both as “kind” even if they didn’t corroborate my story and thus affirm my (admittedly wobbly) sanity.

turkey boySo basically what happened was this: A vicious wild turkey chased me and PROBABLY would have killed me and/or eviscerated me and/or dismembered me with his giant turkey beak had I not escaped miraculously from his fowl clutches. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but this is my story, not yours, so sue me. (No. Don’t. I’m joking. I have no interest in being sued, I swear.)

I was out for my lunchtime constitutional, which consists of huffing and puffing up and down Old Maxwell Road and around a couple of nearby parking lots while windbagging on the phone with family and friends. In the winter, by which I mean a NORMAL winter, not this balmy all-expense-paid cruise to Cancún we’ve been having, I do this until my digits go numb and return to my desk feeling virtuous and cold.

I hadn’t been huffing and puffing very far, and was feeling neither virtuous nor cold, when I spied a couple of wild turkeys on the side of the road. This happens occasionally; they’re around. So, what the hey, I whipped out My Trusty iPhone, which I just now named Excalibur, and snapped a couple pictures of the closest one. He – and I’m guessing he was a he, as he was the larger of the two, plus he was working a chaw of tobacco and watching Spike TV in his boxers – seemed okay with this invasion of his privacy, or at least oblivious to it, until suddenly he wasn’t.

He started walking toward me. I thought: Oh, how nice! He’s a friendly fellow!

Then he kept walking toward me. I thought: Well now, that’s a leeeetle bit weird.

Then he kept walking toward me. I thought: OK. That’s more than a leeeetle bit weird. 

Then I walked backward. Then, being a turkey, he started trotting at me. Then, being chicken, I started trotting backward.

I said: Hey! Get back, turkey! Hey! Hey!

And he said: SCCRRRACCCCKKKK!

I said: Hey! Hey!

He said: SCREEEEEECCCCK! SCREAAAAAACK! SCRAAAACK!

I panicked and said: Hie thee, evil turkey! Arrrrgh!

He said: SCRRAAAEEEEECKKKK!

As he kept trotting, I kept panicking. What to do? Should I climb a tree? Poke him in the schnozz like a shark? Not being schooled in Effective Turkey Evasion Techniques, I decided the thing to do was to start yelling ARRGGGH! ARGGGGH! GO AWAY, TURKEY! while making aggressive anti-turkey motions that might have been better suited for waving off a cloud of moths.

This had no effect on him whatsoever. He kept coming right at me. So I picked up a large stick and poked it in his direction, still countering his SCREAAACKs with my ARRRGGGHs.

Then he started running. I started running. I ran ALLLLLLLL the way down the little steps to the Times Union parking lot, thinking, Shit! If I get killed by a wild turkey on my lunchtime walk, I will never ever ever live it down!

And then the turkey stopped. He was stymied by the steps, apparently. A smaller turkey – wifey? – joined him there, and they howled angry SCRAAAAAAACKs from their superior vantage.

Duly freaked out, I went back inside and announced A TURKEY JUST CHASED ME! I HAD TO FEND IT OFF WITH A STICK!, recalling that this was hardly the first time I’d been attacked by rogue members of other species. (See my book Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival for detailed accounts of my dust-ups with Ecuadorian dogs and monkeys.)

But I survived. And this morning, pulling into the TU lot, I saw Mr. and Mrs. Sociopathic Turkey once again. They gave me the hairy eyeball. I gave mine back and kept my distance.

sucka

My son and I were hoofing north through SoHo, basking in the too-hot-but-we’re-not-complaining sunshine in this belated spring, when a guy in dreadlocks swiftly derailed me.

“Mama! Mama!” he said, sidling up beside me and sliding a CD into my hands with a smile. “Do you like reggae? This is reggae.”

Then, in quick, excited, liquid tones that didn’t allow for much in the way of interruption, he explained that:

A) He had just recorded this CD!
B) It was a beautiful CD!
C) Since I like reggae, he really wanted me to have it!
D) But if I wanted, I could choose to pay him for it! Any amount!
E) He’s from Jamaica, Mama!
F) Yes, he’s from Jamaica, Mama!
G) Specifically, Kingston! Had I ever been there?
H) But I should go! Kingston is beautiful! Reggae is beautiful!
I) His friend over here, he made a CD, too, a rap mix-tape!
J) I could have that, too! Yes, Mama!
K) If I gave him $20, he and his friend could split it down the middle, $10 each!
L) But I shouldn’t worry about those smaller bills I was fumbling with!
M) Really, Mama, no need to hand him ANYTHING but that $20! Just look at that $20! That $20 is perfect!
N) Have a wonderful day, Mama! Thank you!

And Mama walked away laughing, two CDs heavier and twenty bucks lighter. God bless you!, I shouted back at the guy.

“Mom,” my actual son said, stuffing the CDs into my backpack, “he played you like a violin. He played you like staccato. You were so played.” He continued in this gently joking instrumental vein a while longer.

I know I know, I said. But I knew I was being played, I enjoyed the way he played me, I was in on it. So that makes it okay. It was masterful. He was brilliant. He was charming. What a salesman. I was wholly aware and entertained.

“But he played you.”

Yeah. But in a way, we were sharing a moment together, I said. For that moment we weren’t strangers.

Like a violin.”

Later, on the train home to Albany, I pulled the CDs out of the backpack and took a closer look at them.

Stripped along the bottom of one was this subtitle: SUCKAS NEVA PLAY ME.

All I could do was laugh.

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small world

i need to start networking, and soon!

Lately I’ve been hearing about more and more coincidences — head-slapping social flukes that have hit me and other folks my age and older. I mean something more than the usual Smalbany coincidences, which are par for the course in these chummy northern climes; this isn’t just a matter of realizing you and/or your favorite babysitter and/or your cat went to St. Catholics of Catholicism Catholic School with your priest’s uncle’s neighbor’s dentist’s ferret. No. This isn’t that.

I’m talking about geographically wacko coincidences, as in: Hey! That Starbucks barista you met on your visit to the Bering Strait last summer is actually your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s college roommate! Wow! Although, to be honest, I have no idea whether there’s a Starbucks on the Bering Strait, so don’t blame me if you plan your trip over the land bridge and can’t find a Pumpkin Spice Latte. I am merely indulging in poetic license, here.

The point being, this sort of thing happens to me all the time now. I find myself meeting someone new, in some faraway place, and then realizing the two of us share some overlapping personal or professional connection. And I find myself surprised. But lately I’ve started to regard it as S.O.P. for anyone lucky enough to live a decent length of time and know a decent number of people: If you move through life as something other than a miserable, misanthropic, shit-eating crank, you’re bound to collect friends as you go. And those friends, assuming they, too, are something other than miserable, misanthropic, shit-eating cranks, will collect similar numbers of friends as they go. And some of these friends of friends are bound to be your friends, too.

I simply know more people at age 51 than I did when I was younger. Which makes sense. It would be a little odd if we emerged from the birth canal with an iPhone full of contacts. I don’t know about you, but I started out knowing only the inside of my mother’s womb. When I emerged, I met my father and sister. Eventually I was introduced to my father’s Tia Fondina, and as far as I’m aware, I didn’t mark the occasion by howling: OH MY GOD! I MET YOUR OLD FISHMONGER AT THAT TUBA CONVENTION IN NAPLES!!

If I met her now, I might just. Assuming she were alive. And had a fishmonger who played tuba, and assuming I did, too. But it could happen. Because the world gets smaller as the universe expands: it’s a sweet little paradox of human interaction that sprays this life with the light of the next one. When I picture heaven, and it’s hard not to when so many loved ones reside there, I imagine a place where everyone’s a bud, everyone’s blabby, coincidences are rampant (Hey! I know you! You ran the Italian market in my mother’s bridge partner’s accountant’s parish!) and no boundaries exist between known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar, friend and stranger. So if I don’t know your ex-girlfriend now, I will then.

please hello good morning thank you

He was 30, maybe – a young man but not that young, with clipped brown hair and neat khaki shorts and an air of stony purpose about him. He was walking east on New Scotland Avenue. I was hoofing west, happy to run a few errands on foot despite the spit of rain on a gray Saturday morning.

As we passed, I eyeballed him just as I eyeball every stranger when I’m walking around the neighborhood: with curiosity. Was he a law student? A young professional freshly arrived? A neighbor who’s lived here forever but keeps to himself?

Hello!, I said, locking eyes with him briefly before he glanced away.

He said nothing.

I studied his blank, cleanly shaven mug, wondering if he’d even heard me. I think he did; I was plenty loud. It’s possible he was preoccupied. It’s possible he’s as prone to spacing out as I am. It’s also possible he’s stone deaf. Or –- I hate to say it, but this has the highest probability — he simply chose to ignore me. Maybe he’s shy. Maybe he’s distraught over something. Maybe his turtle just died. Or his hastas. Or maybe, and again I hate to say it, he’s just not one for friendly bits of badinage with random unknown sidewalk denizens out running errands.

I shrugged it off, because who cares, right? His problem. Plenty of other folks to greet on a stroll down New Scotland. With some I swapped Hellos, with some Good mornings, with others How are you?’s –though I still have my cranky little issues with that last one. (WHY do we ask that question IF WE DON’T EXPECT AN ANSWER?). Most of us, I think, enjoy swapping pleasantries with folks we’ve never seen before and might never ever ever see again, because even these tiniest, most inconsequential and superficial-slash-insincere of social interactions bind us to one another and help us feel connected.

Opposite St. Peter’s Hospital, I passed an older woman at a bus stop in a long black dress. She gave the warmest smile I’d seen all day, her lovely face radiant and caring. I said hello. She said hello back. And for that mighty micro-moment of miraculous human synergy, we mattered to each other, related to each other, made the world a warmer place.

About 10 minutes later, with most of my errands finished, I started hoofing back east along New Scotland. I passed that same woman at the same bus stop. She gave me the same warm smile. We felt the same fleeting jazz of connectedness. And on my right, I saw him: a big guy standing on the curb, his stance wide, his round face fleshy and welcoming.

He grinned at me.

“PLEASE have a good day,” he implored, flinging out his big arms to embrace the drizzle or the moment or (if I’d been any closer) me.

And you too, I said.

“Thank you!” he replied. And I knew he meant it, just as I knew he meant the please -– beseeching me politely to have a good day as though it mattered to him. As though, if I didn’t have a good day, it might somehow ruin his.

I had one. I hope he did to, too. And the woman who smiled. And the man who didn’t? Maybe, if I see him tomorrow, he’ll say hi back.

not at all scared

i agree, bill wants her to run

but they didn’t even mention obama

On my lunchtime constitutional today, the non-scariest thing happened: four birds of prey circled over my head. I repeat, this was a non-scary event. Totally. Yup. Because I’m not superstitious, and I DID NOT REGARD THIS AS AN OMEN OF DEATH, even though this particular avian foursome resembled vultures looking for carrion. And I was the closest thing nearby that remotely qualified. And they were eyeballing me hungrily, I could just tell. And as they were eyeballing me hungrily, I heard one of them rasp to the other, “What do you think, bro? Too old and stringy? Metallic aftertaste?”

Still, even as I heard this, I DID NOT FREAK OUT. I just squinted mightily and eyeballed them right back, although I’d just eaten yogurt and a banana back at my desk and wasn’t all that hungry, so I doubt I looked convincing. Probably the mighty squinting and faux-ravenous eyeballing just made me look older and stringier and thus less appetizing, because the four of them soon lost interest and landed on the peaked roof of a nearby church, where they then cooled their heels (do they have heels?) while discussing politics (do they have politics?).

BIRD ONE: What do you think? Is Hillary running?
BIRD TWO: Get a real question.
BIRD THREE: Dudes, look. That weirdo white-haired lady. She’s still there.
BIRD FOUR: I still say she looks a little fibrous.

They didn’t stay long. I expect they ran out of things to say to each other, or they lost interest in me, or they wanted to check out that new Japanese restaurant on Wolf Road. But they soon flapped off, leaving me with my pathetic squint and my craned neck and my TOTALLY NON-SUPERSTITIOUS NON-FREAKOUT in response to this symbolically loaded quartet of doom soaring above me. I didn’t really take it as a sign. I didn’t really believe I was about to drop dead on the short walk back to work. But yes, OK, I’ll admit it, I was a wee bit spooked. I’m not sure why I was wee bit spooked. Am I afraid of death? Raptors? Steepled church roofs? Speculation on the 2016 presidential campaign? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, read too much Poe, heard too many yarns around campfires real and imagined. Maybe I’m still a child, and I just want to be scared.

Mostly, I was rapt by the raptors — by their beauty and majesty, by their circling grace and august silhouettes against the lightly tufted late-September sky. What I loved most, in watching them, was what I always love most about Nature: It doesn’t need us. It doesn’t care. It carries on without us, cutting through air and land and water with grace and selfless purpose, and if we’re lucky, we cross paths. In that sense, my lunchtime companions were indeed an omen. A good one.

i grok ‘bouleversant’

I have a new word. I love new words! I love old words too, especially the ones I’ve been using since my saggy-diaper days (“eat,” “poop,” “clap” — love those). But few things make me happier than stumbling across some hitherto-unfamiliar-to-me linguistic nugget, and this is a good one: “bouleversant,” a French adjective with no direct translation but a whole load of meaning that I’ll get to in a minute. And my brother Randy didn’t even coin this one. Instead, “bouleversant” comes to me from John, an erudite and personable young man I met at the Al Ham Birthday Party, 2014 Edition.

You’ll be wondering what the Al Ham Birthday Party is. Or maybe you won’t be; if I hadn’t gone to Hamilton College I really wouldn’t give a damn about it, but I did go there, and I do have many warm memories of the place, and so I care enough about Alexander Hamilton’s annual Albany-area shindig to attend it every other year or so with my friend Jane. We graduated five years apart.

Jane and I started attending these little fetes about 10 or so years ago, back when we were, let’s see, roughly a decade younger than we are now and thus fell into that cozy alumni mid-range between the really young and really old farts. We were moderate farts. But this year, the pair of us realized that we had in fact become much older farts than most everyone else noshing on crabcakes at the Midtown Tap and Tea Room.

My method of coping was to pigeon-hole John, a history major who aced the Al Ham birthday quiz and, it turned out, hadn’t yet graduated. He was beyond doubt the youngest fart there. We chatted about campus life, and some wacky Hamilton lingo from the 80s (“tool” meant not an A-hole but a hard-grinding, carrel-dwelling denizen of the library), and his love of and facility with French.

Somehow — I don’t remember how, as my fartness is more advanced than it once was — that aforementioned word came up in conversation. John defined it as intensely beautiful, intensely emotional, intensely sad; from what I gather, something classifies as “bouleversant” if it wipes you out, leaving you spent but transformed. He offered “Schindler’s List” as an example of one such film.

I grok this word. I can’t pronounce it, and I’d have a hard time sneaking it past editors (whaddaya mean, I can’t use indefinable words in a foreign language?!), but it captures the paradoxically beautiful whammy of life at its most extreme. How often great art hurts; how often I dissolve into a puddle at the Barber Adagio, and that’s as it should be. There’s no point in listening if I’m not, right?

hello, and swasti astu

Here I am, in the trashbag aisle of the supermarket, when a 60ish guy with a muss of a beard brushes past and mutters it. “How ya doin’.”

I glance over. His left arm is clutching tupperware to his chest like a baby. Hanging from his left arm, a six-pack of coke.

He isn’t even looking at me, so I don’t respond. That would be senseless. That’s not part of his plan. He seriously doesn’t give a shit how I’m doin’.

I push my cart to the dairy case, toss in generic Greek yogurt and half-and-half. Then I push it into a checkout line and pull up to a woman with six-inch hoops hanging from her face. I’m temporarily mesmerized by them, wondering why on earth I don’t wear earrings that big, when she mutters it, too.

“How ya doin’.”

She isn’t looking at me, either. She gives about as much of a shit as the guy in the Hefty aisle. But I do my part.

Fine, I say. How ya doin’.

She still isn’t looking, but she does her part, too.

“Fine.”

Well. Phew. Good thing we took care of this hollow but somehow gravely significant ort of social etiquette. But on the walk through the lot back to my car, rolling my yogurts along the tarmac, I wonder why we do it. And I wonder whether it wouldn’t be nice to do away with “How ya doin’s” — and all of its variations, from “How are you” to “What’s shakin'” — unless we actually mean it. Unless we actually want to hear a true response.

It wouldn’t be easy, given the habit-forming business of having mouthed “how are you” about 13 katroollion times since birth, or at any rate since we all started dumbly parroting everything we heard. It also wouldn’t be easy to process the answers we might get: “Thanks, my hemorrhoids flared up this morning, but they’re a little better now” or “Glad you asked! Last night I sucked face with the handsomest guy!” or “Actually, I was just bawling my eyes out in the bathroom; are my cheeks stained?”

Because, seriously, what if we’re not all fine? What if our worlds just came crashing down around our heads in little painful shards? I was discussing this with someone whose world had, in fact, recently imploded, and I was apologizing for the dumbassedly reflexive way I had opened our conversation with “how are you?” Is there anything more trivializing?

So I propose we come up with some viable alternative. I’ve tried “What’s going on?,” but that one feels brassy and belligerent. (Like, what do you think I’ve got goin’ on, man? And you got a problem with it?) “What’s up?” is too cutesy. “What’s happening!” is too late-1970s sitcom with canned yuks and bell bottoms. “How goes it” is a bit too brusque, and not much of an improvement over “how are you.” As for the previously noted “What’s shakin’,” the last time I deployed it on someone, the person looked at me as though I had just opened my mouth and spat out a giraffe.

My father Louis, a passionate amateur linguist, had a phrase he often used when he bumped into people on his daily constitutionals: “Swasti astu.” It means “bless you” or “peace be with you” in Balinese, and I think it’s dandy. I might start using it myself.

Anyone have any better ideas?