Look After Each Other

Today, the feast of St. Stephen. Boxing Day. In the USA, another day. It’s still quieter though – that’s something. Today I had a moment where I realized a deep feeling of sadness and kindness towards America – the one I glimpsed in moments, the faces who stared back at me. Perhaps it is the holiday nostalgia, perhaps it is a regret for what has been taken, and for what might yet be regained. Maybe.

This morning, while trying to rehang a wreath that I got for free at the local garden center, I grabbed the wrong part and found the picture wire going through my finger. As the wreath was very heavy, it was too hard to disengage, but I also noticed another feeling I’ve had lately – of a certain surprise and wonder at sensation, any undeniable feeling. It’s not that the reflexes are slower, more that the half-second spent feeling gets in the way of a saving response.

I’m a bit better now, post-pandemic, with the panic. I took a few deep breaths, cursed my stupidity and the tender skin and aloneness that made these events almost commonplace. I didn’t call anyone, didn’t scream, I don’t take pills but stared the anxiety in the face. Looked up if shots would even do, and yes, best to do them within 48 hours. I’d been putting off a tetanus booster, so, this seemed the moment. The day after Christmas. Of course.

There is a lovely small pharmacy in the town where I live now. In fact, their kindness about giving me my last Covid shot made me consider this place as somewhere I should focus on in my search for somewhere to live. I called them. The women was grim, in that New England way. Just the facts, ma’am. Yes, we give vaccinations, 10-5, Monday through Friday. So if I come in now… Yes, she answered, all resignation and silent astonishment. These people from away. Didn’t I already say all that. Yes. Of course, she didn’t say any of this, but this was clear. I thought for a minute of going to Urgent Care – there is a good one nearby, but they were booked. I know the signs of postponement and anxiety. So shoes on, coat on, insurance card check, and drove off to the pharmacy.

I admitted to being the one who had called and she nodded. I explained what had happened. “So that’s why you’re here, is it?” It’s almost like being in London here – a humanity exists, even if it is more hidden. No kindness, but you might not be surprised if the person who does all the work is brusque or expect her, lanky grey hair, thin face, and colorless eyes to be kind. She’s got to be there all day, is there all day, has seen a parade of arms and injections. No surprises.

The man who gave the injection was kind, warm, a dark haired somewhat plump man who gave off a firefighter calm. Day after Christmas, and here they are, caring for the fool who doesn’t know how to hang things properly. The wire went in like a blade. But you can’t tell people your skin is fragile. Or that you used to carry TVs up flights of stairs. He listened, said it was better to get the shot than the opposite, and choosing a spot and cleaning it with alcohol, was neat, quick. Yes it hurt. I seemed to remember my son telling me those ones always hurt. But after all the COVID shots, I feel like they all hurt.

He gave me the receipt – they have a neat system with ID cards and plastic trays – and I went up to the same woman, with a small purchase. They have a lot of stuff in there. They had evil eye bracelets. I was tempted to get one. The shop still has wooden shelves, and in the front, there is a display of puzzles, and a selection of canes and walkers. One older woman came in while I was waiting – I wondered if that would be me one day, browsing the aids to getting old, in a place where old only happens in small towns. The older women in the city, the ones I saw on my last visit to NYC, walking down the sidewalks that held all the stories for them as for me, the people met, the walk to school, the pizzas, the first job – none of that is in the papers, or the magazines. Anything real isn’t wanted – there. Maybe anywhere.

And here, in the little store, the disapproval of the woman with the grey hair who took my money, and gave me my receipt was clear. But I wasn’t erased. She looked suspicious. But she did her job, and ignored my blandishments and attempts to talk. Thanks weren’t wanted. But the job was done, and as I walked out to the parking area, and got in the car, I sat there. What would we do, where would we be without these people? If there is no community to look after us, then what have we become? I sat there, in my small car, looking at the sign that says – No Dumping – Protected Marsh – and wondered why we’re told only about the young, or the rich, or the famous. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, I told myself. My arm hurts, it’s the day after Christmas, I have the week off, and I’d better do something because that’s what you do.

So I drove to the local supermarket. I parked, it wasn’t too busy. At the side entrance, one automatic door in and one out, with some of that rubber matting at the entry. There was a man and a woman and their child, who was hugging him. She seemed upset, but kept hugging him and the two adults didn’t seem worried. Then the child pulled back, looked up at the man, and dove in for another hug. What had happened? A post-Christmas trip to the supermarket, children need hugs. Inside, at each of the cash registers, groups of people, paying, unloading, leaving. There was a man with a large head, bald, who had a placid look as he put his paper bags into the shopping cart – cart here, not trolley. The cashiers all have badges saying how long they have worked there. Plain people. The bald man could have been the child who was very good at dodgeball or always cleaned erasers, when there were chalk boards and dusty erasers. All children, grown now, watching the next round come through, doing their jobs, putting the receipt copies in vinyl folders, a manager and an assistant mopping the floor by the bottle return. I ask a question of a man in one of the aisles, his coat proclaiming him a worker, and like the grey-haired woman in the pharmacy, he almost seems resigned to the question. He knows right away where it is. A home for all these items and all these people. Two workers, one man, one woman, are getting ready to restock the cereal shelves. They are whispering news to each other. In the frozen and dairy section, a man says to his daughter, sitting in the cart, that they just need to get some frozen meatballs and they’ll be all set. She asks for something, and he says yes, and they both laugh. Here are the meatballs, he says, that’s for tonight.

What a hard job it is, to be the erased in America. The pictures on the magazines at the counters are of the famous, or royal, or those who might need to be in trouble. Kate Middleton’s pinched face stares out towards her Bentley. Another Kardashian goes somewhere with palm trees. It’s hard to be made invisible, as the money paid on taxes, that you can ill afford, as the gas bill doubled this month, and there’s presents to buy, and eking out a life with smiles and meatballs, as another generation grows. The music on the supermarket pa is still the songs from the seventies. I want a time back when I trusted what I bought, when there was the promise of warm dinner and calm.

I know it didn’t exist. But something’s been stolen from everyone. Poisoned fields, pesticides giving your friends and relations cancer, the prices you can’t afford, the hopelessness when even small happinesses have been stolen. Where is Kmart, Sears? Why have we all been convinced that a few families like the Waltons – or Jeff Bezos can choose how low to go, while assuring themselves of only the best.

These simple people, who hated me when I arrived from the city a hundred years ago, an interloping stranger who just scant weeks ago had been drinking in the local bars. Enrolling in the high school put paid to that, except for one bar, bless them. They embraced me, another loner with no one who cared and nowhere to go. But now – I’m watching what we grew up to be. Whether a woman buying a container of scallops and some steak for her lonely Christmas meal or the little girl going home with her dad to watch him make meatballs and sense of everything – what a hard job to be the spokesperson of the “most powerful nation on earth.” They don’t know any of the people across the oceans. The young men who come to pick apples or do something – whether from Jamaica or somewhere else, they don’t know them. They don’t know me. We don’t know each other. And the people who make money off our dreams – they like it like this.

The cashier puts a rubber band on each packet of raspberries that the man in line ahead of me has bought, more than he can afford, a treat for Christmas. When it’s my turn she says hello, and I wish her happy holidays. Where is she from? Vietnam, maybe. I sat with my father as a small child and watched the reports of bombing. Carly Simon comes over the supermarket radio – The Right Thing to Do – “loving you’s the right thing to do.” God, all these lonely people, going through the automatic doors. The man ahead of me is having trouble getting into his old car. He unpacks his bags, some grapes, some chicken – I know what he is taking home with him. And they try to convince us it’s all fine, but you can see on everyone’s face that it isn’t. And all the stories of holiday parties or giant mansions or imminent victory bombing a new group of people who have had the misfortune to be the latest target. And in 50 years, if we are all still here, the descendants of these victims may be the cashiers for the grandchildren of the girl eating meatballs with her father, who never agreed to anything being done in their name, unless it was to give up a present her father wanted to give her, but couldn’t.

The trees come out of the mist, the warming temperature releasing water from the ground. They watch and can’t stop it either.