The line at the dental clinic was as long as it was every Tuesday. And, let’s face it, everybody hates to go to the dentist. Tuesdays were first come, first served, so we started lining up at 7 O’clock. After 9:30 you were too late and wouldn’t be seen until next week.
This Tuesday, my husband and I arrived first. We passed a man downstairs smoking a cigarette, talking to the security guard and we thought nothing of it. It was 7 O’clock.
By 8 O’clock the phone beeped its alarm, and the doors to the clinic were opened. I wheeled through the door, and a couple of people came after.
It was December, and everything sparkled, or drizzled, depending on your point of view. I had a warm cup of eggnog coffee that David got me. I was warm in my fluffy coat and mittened hands. Someone was playing holiday music in the background. Not the canned sound tracks, but a series of calm and lovely instrumentals. They played some 12 string guitar, piano, japanese flute, and lullaby ensembles.
Then, at 8:15, the cigarette man walks in, carrying smoke with him like an aura.
The man was gruff, irritable and looking for a target.
“Sir, will you register and take a seat?” asked Sheryl, the very kind receptionist whom most of us knew pretty well as a decent woman.
“I was here first!” he demanded.
“No,” said Sheryl, setting a boundary. “Sarah was here first.”
“Well!” he said even angrier, ” I would never take another person’s place in line. I could never do that!” Implying that I had indeed done just that. It helps to know he was glowering at me while speaking.
Now, I don’t know how you feel about smokers losing their place in line. If you smoke, you probably get it. If you don’t, then most of us think smoking is a choice.
But I do know two things. I know that smoking is very, very hard to quit. And, getting older and now in a wheelchair half the time, I know what it is to be overlooked.
“Sir,” I said, “You can have my spot. I will trade with you.”
“No ma’am! I couldn’t do that” he said, choosing to be right over what he wanted, maybe even needed. “I will not take someone else’s place. I just couldn’t do it.”
Having a new place in line, he stormed out.
Maybe he needed another smoke.
And you just can’t make some people happy, right?
The denturist was late, so we were all waiting anyway. Children fussed. People read. Some listened to music on their phones and tried to ignore the rest of us. David and I filled out Holiday Cards.
Then a little miracle happened. As though he had remembered that he was a human being, Mr. Cigarette came back in.
First he apologized to Sheryl. Then he turned to me, and with sweetness in his eyes and said, “I am so sorry. I treated you badly.”
“It’s alright,” I said.
“No, it isn’t. You should be treated better than that. We all should.”
He introduced himself as “MC”, and I told him my name and we talked about normal, neighborly stuff. Where we came from. What we came for, what we left behind. It is common that Northwesterners have immigrated, or come from an immigrant family. The Pacific Northwest was always home to solid timber and fishing industries. Then came the Naval jet fighter base, Boeing, Weyerhauser, and later Microsoft, Costco, Starbucks and of course, Amazon. The brain jobs pay well, and the rest of us, by Seattle Law, make $15 and hour. That is plenty of money, but not in the 2nd most expensive city in the U.S. That leaves us in need of clinics, low income housing, day care, elder care, food banks, and other support systems that can be found here. I am grateful for everything from my landlords to USPS, where my husband works. Every place has its own economic ecology, and we had found our place in ours.
MC did in fact go in to see the denturist before me. A denture adjustment takes about 5 minutes. A denture alignment is 20 minutes of gooey impressions that taste like burned plastic with an aftertaste of peppermint. Maybe it’s seasonal. Next time I want rum, or butterscotch. Then after a two hour wait, the deturist refits the dentures, adjusts a bit, and you are free for the day to smell your teeth as they offgas fumes.
Five minutes into the pre-gooey wait, MC pops his head into my room smiling
“They will be right with you. They just finished with me. And these guys will take good care of you!” Which they did. I gave him my best toothless grin.
MC also stopped to speak to my husband on his way out.
“You know, your wife, she’s a keeper,” he says.
“I know, sir. I try to take good care of her.” Said my husband.
Before this morning I was a walking wounded person, probably grieving things that need to be changed in the world which I have no power to affect.
A friend of mine recently told me that I had been inaccurately applying the Talmudic concept that each of us must do our duty toward repairing the world.
“When that was written , Sarah, the book was refering to tending your garden, raising your children, feeding your livestock, pitching in to build a village bridge. It was not about facing off hoards of armed cossacks with only your bare hands.” He went further.
“Somewhere between your sense of Catholic guilt and Jewish justice, you have dedicated yourself to things so far beyond your reach that you damage yourself in the attempt.”
A truth about me.
Today my reach is 5 feet wide, shorter if I am at a keyboard.
Today I can write.
And what I learned is:
The world is ablaze and in danger.
There are individuals, companies, and countries trying to reverse that.
There is inequality, racism, sexism, rape, famine, war, fire, flood, homelessness, refugees, horrors both visible and invisible, but coming into view – it is all overwhelming.
Life is hard.
Life is good.
The world is cruel.
The world is full of opportunity.
Some people are mean.
Some surprise you.
Sometimes it is the same person.
Sometimes, even, on the same day.
PS. Every word of this story is true, except for mittens. I do not have mittens. I cannot find a pair to fit my long skinny fingers. The story gets mittens. The story needed them.