By James Hilston
Originally published in the Post-Gazette
on November 16, 2013
"Here!” That’s what the rude woman said as she shoved a book at me. “There’s a box upstairs. Put this in it.”
The Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library is on the second floor of a two-story building. Visitors to this location know that you have two choices for entering: the stairs or the elevator.
After parking my car in the adjoining garage, I made my way toward the stairs that lead to the library’s entrance. Ahead of me, a woman had just begun climbing the stairs and another, older woman was at the bottom of the stairs, trying to get her attention.
“Excuse me,” the older woman said. “Excuse me!” she said again, more loudly. The younger woman was about halfway up the stairs and seemed to be completely ignoring these interrogatives.
As I approached the bottom of the stairs, she turned toward me. The expression on her face flashed from agitation to “Aha!”
“Here!” she said, thrusting a paperback book into my field of vision. Instinctively, I stopped and raised my hands in a defensive posture. Then I took the book. “There’s a box upstairs. Put this in it.”
At this point, my mind began to time-travel. I call it time-traveling because it involves a rather vivid and emotional imagining of the possible future outcomes of my behavioral options, all in just a couple microseconds. I determined that one of several possible scenarios was about to ensue. Here they are, in the order in which they played out.
Scenario one: I alternately looked at the book, and then at the woman, and then at the book again. I then turned my gaze up the flight of stairs and smiled. I looked back at the woman, and, without breaking eye contact, I lofted the book to the top of the stairs. Then I said, eyes still locked onto hers, “I just changed my mind about going to the library.” At which point I turned and walked back toward the garage and left.
Scenario two: I looked down to see that the book was about gardening techniques. I then stared at the woman for a moment, just long enough for her to wonder why I wasn’t doing her bidding. As she opened her mouth to speak, I thrust a finger up to my lips in a sudden “shhh” gesture. Then I said, in the kindest voice I could muster, “Look, I understand you must be in a hurry. Otherwise you wouldn’t have so ignorantly and presumptuously assigned this task to me with such blatant disregard for even a modicum of apology or gratitude in the process.”
As she began to protest, I shot her an angry expression and put my hand up, as if to say “Halt! Clamp your yammering food hole.” She desisted and I continued, “Notwithstanding the whirlwind of busy-ness that apparently is your life — although you seem at least to have time to do gardening — it does not justify your rudeness or the staggering absence of appreciation in your tone or demeanor, to say nothing of the utter arrogance and imagined superiority that is obviously the delusional impetus behind your demand. So, no, I won’t drop your book in the return box for you. But I will offer this tip: There’s a return box in the garage behind me — it’s right over there. You don’t even need to climb the stairs to get to it. Good day.”
With that, I shoved the book back at her. “Here.” And then I walked up the stairs toward the library entrance.
Scenario three: “Sure!” Then, with a spring in my step, I mounted the stairs. As I approached the library doors, I noticed a potted plant in a corner of the lobby. Glancing around to make sure no one was looking, I gingerly slid the book behind the plant, well out of view. I figured, judging by the woman’s haste, that the book was due or perhaps overdue. So, by the time the book was found behind the plant, she’d have a fairly sizable fine, enough to possibly teach her not to so rudely impose upon the kindness of strangers.
Scenario four: In quasi-stunned semi-disbelief, I didn’t say a word, but obediently, book in hand, walked up the stairs into the library and dropped it into the book return slot.
I seem to be a magnet for these kinds of odd encounters with strangers, and whenever they happen, several things go through my mind. First, there is the time-traveling: the flood of images and emotions regarding what I could say or do in reaction to what just occurred. Then there is a sort of out-of-body observation of my actual reaction, which always amazes me for the simple fact that I do not consciously choose one reaction over another; they just happen.
As to the scenario that actually transpired, it was scenario four, as you probably guessed. After it was all over, I marveled at the immediate memory of it. I smiled, shook my head and made a sort of scoff noise to myself, intimating something akin to, “The nerve of some people.” But the question that now needled me was, “Where was MY nerve?” I should have, at least, dropped the book into the incorrect “Multi-Media” slot.