I had the opportunity to perform a random act of kindness towards a stranger at the grocery store today.
I did not perform said act of kindness.
To start, I like to think that I'm a good person. I possess what I would consider to be the qualities of a good person; I'm generally friendly, I try to do things which are helpful to others, I've never lit an orphanage on fire, I go to the upstairs bathroom to poo so that my wife does not have to pay for my sins... I could continue but I think you get the idea. I am, for the most part not a complete iguana scrotum of a human being.
Nice as I like to think I am, and as much as I would like to pride myself on being the type of person who would do an unsolicited charitable thing for a stranger, I am also cripplingly uncomfortable with even the most casual social interaction with strangers.
This has been the case for as long as I can remember. In fact my father takes particular glee in recounting tales of how I would glare murderously at any adult that would attempt to interact with me when I was as young as two years old. Don't believe me? This is my second grade school photo.
I specifically remember that the photographer was overly cheery and made way too much of an effort to be my pal and get me to smile. This, naturally, made me so uncomfortable that I resorted to staring unhappily at her until she gave up and just took the picture.
Now, realistically, I don't think I was ever legitimately an angry hateful little bastard. I mostly just remember being shy and uncomfortable, but lacking a developed sense of socially acceptable behavior to mask it.
As I've grown older, I don't particularly feel like I've become any less uncomfortable around other people, but I've definitely developed the ability to generate the appropriate facial expressions, inflection of voice, and general level of pleasantness not to make people think I'm some sort of sociopath. Retreating behind a stone faced deadpan might fly when you are six but it certainly doesn't when you are a grown ass man.
Now, I am not sure if this ability to interact socially is something that comes naturally to most people, but it typically requires a herculean amount of mental effort for me to accomplish. I am usually left feeling like a trauma victim for several days after any major amount of socializing with people I don't know all that well. It's not that I dislike socialization, it just takes a lot of energy out of me and I need to recharge afterwards.
I detail all of this general social discomfort because I believe it sets the stage for understanding the following story:
On the particular day this occurred, I ran into the grocery store next to our gym after my workout in order to pick up a gallon of milk Emily had asked me to bring home. This grocery store is one of those ones where they shave costs by doing things like putting coin slots on carts to make sure people restock them, don't offer any type of bags for the groceries they sell and sell meat and produce that is of questionable quality at best. It is however cheap, so as long as we avoid the iffy stuff it's great for getting the basics.
Though the level of detail I've gotten into about our grocery habits is probably superfluous, the fact that this is one of those "cost saving" stores does relate to the story.
I enter the store, grab my gallon of milk and head over to the register to check out.
There is a woman ahead of me at the checkout when I set my gallon of milk down on the conveyor thing. She is far enough along in the process of her transaction that all of her items have been scanned and she is working on the pin pad.
The conversation underway as I arrive goes something like this:
Cashier: "Is that a credit card? We can't accept credit here, only debit or cash."
Woman: "Oh, yeah I think it is, it might be a combo credit/debit though..."
Cashier: "Ok. As long as you've got a pin number it should work."
*woman swipes card, and fusses with pin pad for a few seconds, discovering that it's not going to work*
Cashier: "Ok, well you can try to call the number on the card and set up your pin if you don't know it. That sometimes works..."
Apparently as a method of keeping costs down, this store does not accept credit to avoid the processing fees associated with them. This woman apparently only had a credit card on her as a means of attempting to make her purchase.
As the interaction between the cashier and the woman ahead of me takes place, I am undergoing a silent battle within myself; It only looks like the woman has a couple of items, her entire transaction is probably under fifteen bucks. I could just offer to pay for the groceries along with my milk and do a good deed for this person. I am conflicted however.
Firstly, the cart is partially blocked from my view so I can't be entirely sure that there are not sixty-eight cans of soup, an entire turkey and a gold Rolex in that cart that I just cant see.
If I make a move and the contents of this cart turn out to be more expensive than I am prepared to pay, I'm now forced to either rescind my offer like a total doucher or blow my own weekly grocery budget on this lady and her unreasonable amount of soup.
Additionally and more prominently, I am highly paranoid that if I say something, I'll end up looking awkwardly eager to buy her groceries for her. This, I am convinced, will for some reason cause everyone in the store to think I am a giant creepy sex pervert/murder rapist who chooses his victims based on buying them foodstuffs.
I honestly don't know if this is a fear that other people experience, but the number of times that I haven't done something nice for a stranger because I'm truly afraid they will think I'm using whatever the situation may be as my opener before trying to lure them into my windowless bang-van is a little out of control.
I live in constant fear of saying, doing, or just generally existing in such a way that leads people to think I am some sort of molester.
As this woman struggles to successfully complete her transaction I am crippled by indecision, social awkwardness, and the paralyzing fear of strangers thinking I am a creep. I am a prisoner inside my own body. I want to be helpful but I cannot force myself to move or speak, no matter how hard I try to will myself into action.
Before I can internally spur myself to action the woman gives up on making her purchase, apologizes to the cashier for wasting her time and turns to leave the store.
I move up with my gallon of milk and am able to get a good look at the now abandoned contents of the woman's cart. It isn't very much at all. The shame of my inability to act gentlemanly combined with the fact that the woman was now no longer standing there inspires me to make a desperate attempt to rectify the situation.
I quickly tell the cashier to just ring up my milk with the rest of that lady's stuff before she clears the transaction saying that I'd run out and see if I could catch her and give it to her.
I pay for my milk and the items in the cart along with one of those plastic bags they'll sell you for fifteen cents if you forgot to bring your own ahead of time before running out of the store to the parking lot after the woman.
It was too late. By the time I made it out, there was no sign of her. It then occurred to me that even if there had been, I'm not entirely sure I could have identified her anyway. I had been so consumed with my own thoughts and trying to see what was in the cart while she had been standing there, I hadn't really taken note of what she looked like or was wearing.
I do a mental recap to see if I can recall her appearance from my subconscious.
My subconscious is a dick, and is unhelpful as usual.
Defeated, I returned to my car with my gallon of milk and unwanted groceries and went home.
And that is how I ended up with two limes, an avocado, some rice, and a box of frozen, microwavable pulled pork.