Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Radical Sitting

In most Asian countries, it’s impolite to point your chopsticks at another person. In parts of the Middle East, you’ll be offensive if you point the soles of your feet in someone’s direction. And at the T J Maxx store near Michigan Avenue, you’ll freak out the assembled shoppers if you sit down on the floor by the elevators, cross your legs, and close your eyes.

I know this last statement to be true, because this exercise in unintentional mass-freaking-out happened to me just a few days after Christmas, on our holiday road trip to Chicago. On that particular day, I was up early (before noon), and the teens, per yewzsh, as Mary says, were not. Nothing to do but walk, so we set off at as quick a clip as the large, shambling crowds would allow. Dick wanted to check out the menswear offerings in a couple stores. I said I’d go inside with him and wait. I never mind waiting (it’s such nice break from my usual “off hours” occupations of cooking, driving and grocery shopping), so I told him that I’d be by the elevators when he finished.

There were, I discovered, no chairs by the elevators.

No problem. I executed my standard old-lady-to-the-floor maneuver of backing up to a wall and sliding down, slowly, as if I’d been shot by a very old bullet. Legs crossed and eyes closed, I tried breathing for a while, and then I tried thinking of nothing. Then I started a few prayers, the ones I say every morning -- one Hail Mary for each of my dead friends. A prayer for my mother, a prayer for Joel, a prayer for Theresa … and that’s when I heard the crackle of a walkie-talkie right above my ear. I looked up into a pair of navy blue polyester-clad knees. It was the security guard, there to visit my little oasis of quiet in his bustling emporium.

“You okay, maam?” he asked, indicating that, in his opinion, I was very much Not Okay. I rechecked the perimeter of my sitting area. I was not blocking merchandise or the ability to make a purchase. I wasn’t plugging up any speakers, because Toni Braxton was wailing, storewide, just as loudly as when I had sat down.

I was just, well, sitting. But this guy did not seem pleased with the notion, and I think he suspected that I’d been praying, too. He kept looking at me out of the corner of his eye, like he expected me to shape-shift into his grandmother.

It seemed like a good time to say something respectable. “I’m waiting for my husband,” I tried. This seemed to mollify the guard. There was a man attached to me, somewhere, poor jerk, and that jerk might be piling up a large purchase right now, even if I seemed to have missed the basic purpose behind all this real estate – look at the stuff and buy some of it, for God’s sake. The guard jerked his head, once, as if someone was pulling a cord attached from his skull to the ceiling, and then he took off, his hip still crackling with radio waves. I wondered what he’d report into his walkie-talkie when he got out of my hearing.

I settled back, less easily. I hadn’t realized that what I was doing would attract attention or cause alarm. I am completely invisible most of the time, so those few times when anyone happens to notice me can be unsettling. I closed my eyes again. I’d run out of dead people, which happens if I have enough time to pray, so I started on Hail Marys for the live ones. I had just about finished with my roster of favorites, and was about to tackle the throat-closing, finger-twitching discomfort of praying for people who intimidate me, disapprove of me and generally make me want to crawl into a hole. I took a deeper breath and heard a rustle.

This guy looked nicer. I didn’t think he worked for the store, but when he asked me if I was okay, there was a professional crispness in his delivery, as if he were an off-duty EMT. Or someone who worked in a mental hospital, I suddenly realized. I looked up into his friendly eyes and repeated my story. He smiled, warily, but kept hanging around the men’s sock display, which was the merchandise closest to my elevator hideaway.

By now I was finding it hard to keep my eyes closed and pray. A lot of men suddenly seemed to be looking for socks. Hadn’t they gotten any good Christmas presents? It’s not much of a holiday without new socks under the tree, I mused, sending out some sympathy to these poor blighters, who all seemed to be examining each item with great care, as if yes, they were very interested in the difference between plush crew and athletic wicking, thank you very much.

I wondered, with a jolt, if they really were sad, sockless post-Christmas customers, or if they were undercover floorwalkers, there to make sure I didn’t try anything funny. I’m just sitting, I wanted to shout, but then I realized that this would be the behavior they’d been fearing all along. 

I tried to see things from their perspective. What if everyone just sat down, right where they were, and stopped shopping? I imagined how Michigan Avenue would look, with people dropped into place along the sidewalks, women slipping to the floor in dressing rooms, tweens releasing their hard-won skankwear in Forever 21, children ungripping the latest xbox slaughterfest from their grubby paws. It would be mayhem – quiet mayhem, but still.

This store needed me up on my feet. I was supposed to be flipping through the racks of women’s sweaters, trying on pair after pair of uncomfortable shoes, dragging my maximum-six number of items into the dressing room. People who are not actively checking out their nether regions in the three-way mirror are not people who are contributing to the local economy, and we know all where that leads. Well, I don’t know, to tell you the truth, because I never pay attention to those things, but I assume it leads to somewhere bad.

I saw their point. I thought I was just an old lady in a knitted cupcake hat, tending my inner garden while the world looked at socks. But they were right. I was a troublemaker, and instigator and Bad Example.

I started to feel uncomfortable from the mix of too much self-reflection and some very creaky knees. Just then, I saw my husband headed toward me, bulging plastic bags in tow.

The economy would survive. I would get off the floor and leave this store. I imagined my friend the security guard, watching me on a video screen in some back office and fist-pumping the empty air, relieved that he’d managed to avoid the paperwork and hassle of calling the cops on yet another wacko.

As the elevator doors closed, I glanced out at the men’s sock department, which seemed, suddenly, a bit forlorn. What this department needs, I thought, is a praying woman, just to make things more interesting.

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