We’ve pretty much all had this experience: You have a disagreeable encounter with someone who raises your hackles, and frustrated with your own lack of eloquence to explain your point, you turn on your heel in an impotent fury, leave, and on the way home in your car, smack the steering wheel with the sudden realization of what you should have said.
Only it’s too late!
That rarely happens to me. Not because I’m smarter than the average bear, by any means, but I guess having been a stand-up comic for pretty much my entire adult life and dealing with drunken hecklers at the midnight show in Vegas, my antenna sort of homes in regarding certain situations.
And, of course, timing really is everything.
When I stood behind this particular individual at the dollar store, I was at the end of a rather long day (ever notice how when people are about to relay a tale of behaving rudely, they feel the need to qualify it by telling you how tired they were?): barn chores, working a couple of horses, visiting my mom, getting in a load of hay, grocery shopping and then, just as I was perusing a now pleasantly filled fridge with thoughts of dinner, freshly showered and in my jammies, Paul, with four overfed felines yowling at his heels, said, “Did you remember to buy cat food?”
No, darn it.
So back into street clothes and down to the dollar store I went for something to tide them over that I hoped wasn’t filled with Chinese ingredients that would kill them.
It was then that I had my encounter.
Standing behind a woman with my box of Special Blend for Your Lazy, Curtain-spraying Indoor Cat, my eyes fell upon on a heinous tabloid with all sorts of photos and gory headlines concerning the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I sighed.
The woman heard my sigh, followed my gaze and remarked rather acidly, “Isn’t it pathetic? These Hollywood actors make millions of dollars and then kill themselves with drugs. They found him with the needle still in his arm. And he has three kids. Disgusting.”
“Disgusting?” I asked, blinking.
“Well,” she snorted, “when you choose to be an addict instead of facing up to your responsibilities, that’s pretty disgusting. He’s left three children fatherless.”
“I don’t think anyone hopes they grow up to become an addict,” I countered.
“Well, nobody forces you to become an addict.” she snapped.
That remark just sorta made my heart hurt. I decided not to reply tartly, just honestly, and said, “No, you’re right. No one forces anyone to become an addict.”
“They’re just selfish,” she went on, “ And I have zero pity for them. Spoiled and selfish.”
It was at this point that my heckler antenna began to ascend from the top of my head, rather like Ray Walston in “My Favorite Martian.”
“Gosh,” I began, “it’s so sad, isn’t it, that the majority of this country is selfish and disgusting, too – you know, addicts.”
It was at this point that the cashier, after scanning the second case of Mountain Dew, looked up.
The woman laughed quietly and said, “I don’t think the majority of this country are addicts.”
“Sure they are,” I said. “Something like 60 percent of this country are on prescription drugs. In fact, the overwhelming majority of drug overdose deaths last year were from doctor-prescribed medications. And on top of that, the same percentage of people in America are overweight. Obese.”
By now the woman no longer chose to meet my eye and half turned her shoulder on me as she answered coldly, “I really don’t think you can compare being overweight to being a heroin addict.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Seems to me an addict is an addict. What’s the difference? If somebody continues to stuff cheeseburgers in their face and wash it down with Mountain Dew (looking pointedly into her cart) after their doctor has told them repeatedly that if they don’t lose weight and start exercising, they’re going to drop dead of a heart attack by the age of 50 and they do, I don’t think I’d call them ‘spoiled and disgusting’ and ‘selfish’ for choosing their food addiction over their children, would you?”
The atmosphere inside the dollar store became as frigid as the February evening outside, but I was nearly finished.
“Or the divorced mom who accidentally overdoses on anti-anxiety medication because she is stretched to the limit, trying to care for her three kids, keep food on the table and hold down a full-time job? I don’t think she meant to get addicted, do you? I don’t think she meant to be selfish and disgusting. I don’t think she meant to become so depressed that she couldn’t think straight.”
My debate partner just shook her head, dismissing me, snatched her bags from the cashier and stalked out.
I only had a couple of miles to drive home, but I did have that “smack the steering wheel” moment of what I wish I had added: “Maybe if we were all a bit kinder to begin with, no one would become addicts.”
Reach PAM STONE at firstname.lastname@example.org.