I noticed him as I was looking for the shortest check-out line to get into. My cart was just full enough that I couldn't justify the 15 or fewer line, so I cruised by the other lines slowly. He had a cart, too, but that's not what caught my eye. He was searching the faces of people as they walked by, like he expected someone to recognize him and be glad to run into him.
I pegged him as weird right away. Harmless, but someone to be avoided because he might want to start a needy conversation that would be hard to get out of. I looked away to make sure no eye contact would happen, then headed back to the dairy section for the cream cheese I suddenly remembered I needed.
Returning to the check-out lines, I slid into the only one that didn't have a string of carts extending outward. There was one person being checked-out, and one unloading his cart. It took a few minutes before I realized he was the weird guy I'd gone in search of cream cheese to avoid.
I briefly considered changing lines, but curiosity got the better of me.
There were already several of his things on the belt, carefully arranged like houses on a city block. Only three items were left in his cart, three bags of produce. Each bag contained two vegetables, and each had the loose end wound around to create a neat cylinder. He picked up the first cylinder, containing two medium-sized red potatoes, slowly unwound the plastic, set the bag just so and draped the plastic over his other items. That routine was repeated twice, first with two identical carrots, then with two small zucchinis.
OCD? I wondered. Lives with his mom? Just got out of prison? His pressed jeans and light jacket on a day when the temperature was in the teens seemed to confirm my suspicions. Something was clearly up with this guy. Middle-aged, with gray hair just in need of a barber's attention, but clean-shaven - he seemed much younger than he looked.
When he'd completed this ritual, and his cart was empty, he looked up, straight into my nosy critical eyes. And smiled. I smiled back, caught with my judgment in full flair, grateful he couldn't read my mind. Hoping he'd buy my smile.
He tried to push his empty cart forward so I could move up to unload my groceries. The person in front of him wasn't done, so we were stuck. I shrugged, smiled again, and said it was okay, there was no hurry. I wished fervently that the checker would hurry up.
Then he did the most astonishing thing. He put the plastic bar down behind his items, and proceeded to unload my cart onto the belt. He picked up each item as though it were a rare treasure and set it gently down, smiling the whole time.
I considered my choices through significant discomfort. I said, "That's really nice. You don't have to do that." He smiled deeper and kept at his task, but offered no response.
I could have told him to stop. But he was having so much fun. And there was an air of reverence about him that over-rode everything else. So I stood there, with nothing to do but be grateful for his spontaneous gift, and be aware of how hard it was to accept, and feel sheepish (not the first time for this) about being so judgmental.
He noticed a box of sinus rinse packets toward the bottom of my cart, and for the first time engaged in conversation. "I use these. They're great. Not every day, but when I think I'm getting a cold. I think they really help."
And I responded as though this were the most normal thing in the world to talk about. "My husband uses them all the time and really likes them, too."
We exchanged a few more words about sinuses until the woman in front of him finally finished. I studied him as the checker and he conducted the usual grocery line small talk. His open face and serene attention were focused entirely on the tired woman scanning his few items. Her required customer-service smile seemed to grow warmer under his gaze.
As he prepared to leave, he turned his smile to me once more. My responding smile was genuine this time, as were my words of gratitude for his gift of an unloaded grocery cart, and my heart's acceptance of the much greater gift of spontaneous, open-hearted kindness.
photo from Flickr