UNITED STATES—It was the longest elevator ride I have ever spent, creeping from one floor to the next.
We boarded the elevator garage level at the Avalon Trader Joe’s. An alarm was ringing as we slipped in the open elevator, where a sour-faced man and woman flanked an empty grocery cart.
My daughter looked over at them and said, “Is the elevator working?”
I stood there as these people gave my daughter no response, and I thought about turning on the man and woman full on:
“My daughter addressed you. She spoke to you and you made no response or minimal form of acknowledgement. She just got back from a trip to Japan where people are naturally polite. Also, they have a very high suicide rate, which may be beside the point. You are making Americans look bad. Just staring there, sour-faced and gawking. Where are your manners, you louts and boors?”
Finally the elevator reached the end of its slow creep, it aligned flush with the ground floor. The doors opened. My daughter and I exited first. I took about three steps and uttered an offended “Well” á la Jack Benny. Which seems to the best response to automotive slights and antisocial flights of great virtuosity, where the wall goes up and the stone stare goes out.
The initial reaction was, did that really happen? Did those people really ignore my daughter, being spoken to and offering no response? The non-response was so outlandish as to have been a hallucination. Things like that I easily un-believe. But from my daughter’s reaction to my “well,” which served to release all the tension, I had not dreamed this. It had happened. Now what if I had taken things with my fellow elevator passengers it in the confrontational direction? I was held back by politeness and fear, the twin bastions of civilization and civility.
We did out shopping, after first visiting the coffee sample section. In different areas of the store we kept running into sections of the people we’d shared the dreadful elevator ride with. The man wore a watermelon tennis shirt and had white Bill Clinton hair and the woman had tawny hair and a paisley summer blouse. Saw the back of there heads and browsed the tomato paste, spaghetti section. From behind shelves stocked with wines emerged the blond coils of the woman, fuchsia paisley shoulders in view. She was chuckling, smiling. Yes, she could smile, villainy is not a 24-hour job. Yet, when she caught a glimpse of me, the sour face went back on. You could see at anchor her husband for whom the frown never jumped ship.
Finally, they were pushing their cart, once empty and now full, in front of the dairy section and then came to a halt right in front of the yogurt. Interaction was unavoidable. It was time to face the demons of effrontery and speak up. Face the demons I must.
“Could you please move your cart, so I can reach the yogurt?” Nothing. Are you crazy? Are you deaf? I thought. The woman stared, the man remained sour faced. Another customer passed by with a basket. The woman who’d shared the elevator ride from heck murmured something musical and yet atonal. The lady with the red basket turned to me:
“They have difficulty understanding you. They only speak Bulgarian.”
Graydon Miller is the author of “Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood” (on Amazon).