The man wearing the bike helmet was angry. I silently labeled him “Angry Man.” It was 7:30 on a humid Friday morning and I was standing in the supermarket check-out line when Angry Man clomped over in my general direction. Seven-thirty feels too early for so many things (clomping definitely), but also thinking clearly or being vertical; it feels like a much too tender time of the day for rage.
Yet rage he was, this Angry Man. Tall, white, broad-shouldered, maybe clocking out somewhere in his mid to late-60s with a white bristly mustache and glasses. He could have been someone’s grandfather or husband or fishing buddy. Likely he was at least one of those things out in the world, but in the supermarket he was simply, profoundly, insistently angry.
A cell phone smashed against his ear, which was no small thing given the bike helmet situation, he berated the person on the other end of the phone for infractions unknown to the rest of us within ear shot, which was pretty much everyone in the store at that point. “Unacceptable, “outrageous,” and “unbelievable” spilled from his mouth in rapid fire succession. I had worked retail several lifetimes ago. I remember getting hollered at by irate customers unhappy with the return policy or aggrieved because the shiny-amazing-must-have-thing (code: tacky junk) they ordered failed to arrive on time for their wife’s birthday (the one they routinely forgot anyway). You smiled. You took it for the retail team, the customer being right and all that despite also being a colossal garbage human. You made fun of them mercilessly later on in the break-room with your fellow retail soldiers. You put it in the rear view and moved on. I wondered at the person on the other end of the line absorbing Angry Man’s fury. I hoped he or she was wearing their own protective head gear.
Standing in line with the items from my “shame shopping” trip littering the conveyor belt—ice cream, cookies, chips, a pathetic bag of baby carrots (healthy!), a tub of chocolate covered pretzels—I kept one eye on the theater of the absurd taking place in front of me. I felt mostly embarrassed for Angry Man. I imagined him going home to his person:
“What took you so long, George? You were just going to get milk and some fruit.”
“I had some difficulty with the credit card company and spent an extra twenty minutes screaming and ranting like a cartoon villain in front of a bunch of strangers!”
“I see. So, no fruit then?”
Awkward followed by a side of: yikes.
But as Angry Man became increasingly unhinged, at one point bellowing for a manager’s or superior’s email and threatening to bring down the hammer of Thor upon this entire company (i.e. lawyer up), I could feel my armpits dampen and the back of my neck get hot. We seem to be wading deeper and deeper into zero fucks given territory when it comes to unleashing our pain, rage, hate, and searing frustration onto the world. It’s hare trigger central out there, a public landscape cross-stitched with infrared trip wire beams wired to some mother lode of supremely negative juju. Step lightly. That messed up coffee order at Starbucks could just as easily be the catalyst for someone’s violent outburst as the finalized divorce or layoff. I felt my blood pressure thump.
The customer in front of me was a tall, lean athletic-looking man in his late-40s. Curly hair, glasses, a singular earring winking out of one ear, he wore a pair of headphones slung around his neck and a faded Wilco concert t-shirt. “Hippie Dude,” became his mental designation. Hippie Dude and the clerk both had eyes on the situation, which made me feel somewhat better. The clerk encouraged Angry Man to take his phone call outside. Hippie Dude chimed in, taking it a step further by gently suggesting he take it easy on the person on the phone. They’re just doing their job, man, I heard Hippie Dude say. This did not go over well. Hippie Dude essentially lobbed the verbal equivalent of a Molotov cocktail onto the TNT-laced oil slick that was Angry Man.
Angry Man began shouting something about the “kind” of people he was dealing with on the phone that landed in the lightly-coded-as-racist category, which did not wash with Hippie Dude. Nope. The two men came together, their faces inches apart. The clerk rushed over, telling Angry Man to finish his transaction with the manager and leave the store. He swung around and stalked over to another register. Muttering, shaking his head, Hippie Dude started to exit, but apparently changing his mind, turned and walked back over to Angry Dude.
“If you’d like to take this outside,” he said, leaning over the counter, “I would love to take this outside.” Oh God, I thought, we are going to be on FOX News and not for sleeping with a Kardashian or finding a ten-foot python in the toilet. I felt rooted to the spot, unable to do much but watch what was going to happen. There were two other customers behind me now and I could feel us collectively tense and still ourselves. At that point it was all just a little too much for Angry Man—he was paying for his items, he was still, somehow, fighting with the person on the goddamn phone, and now he had this customer in his face goading him into going outside and settling things “like real men.” He was like Kong at the end of the movie, gripping the Empire State Building, trying to hold onto Fay Wray while swatting at planes, except, you know, a white retiree in bifocals and a bike helmet. Angry Man brushed past Hippie Dude and stormed through the exit at one end of the store, Hippie Dude shook his head one more time, turned around and left.
The clerk returned to the register and began sliding my groceries across the sensor.
“And it’s not even the day before Thanksgiving,” I said with a smirk. I may be useless in a knife fight, but if you need someone to break the tension with a smart-ass remark, I’m your gal. He chuckled a little and shook his head. The brief pause in the atmosphere ended like a needle dropping on a record. The woman behind me took out her phone and started scrolling. The manager disappeared into a back office. The storm had passed.
As I replayed the experience over the course of the day, I thought less about Angry Man and all the things that made us mutually broken as a society that might account for his pain. I actually didn’t care very much to understand the roots of his damage. Instead I thought about the person on the end of the phone who, most likely, had already been screamed at a few times that day and will get dressed-down by someone else tomorrow. We circulate anger thoughtlessly, almost casually, the same way canned air circulates inside the cabin of a plane. I thought about the person on the end of the phone, shouldering this fury, never knowing that someone had intervened on their behalf, that someone had said “No” to this kind of recklessness, that they had an advocate half a world away. But I knew and I won’t soon forget.