Dear businessman at the grocery store

You didn't notice me when you breezed in front of me in line, talking on your cellphone.

Published September 19, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

You probably don't remember me -- I was the middle-aged, overweight, white woman with a shopping cart -- the type of woman that guys like you don't notice.

But I was the person you breezed in front of when you got in line at the grocery. You were talking on a small, expensive-looking cellphone. And from the way you were dressed -- pinstripe suit trousers and a white shirt -- and from what you had in your basket -- bags and bags of Reeses Pieces, M&Ms, lots of bite-sized chocolates and two packages of sushi -- I assumed you were buying stuff for lunch and some social function.

I'm one of those with a knee-jerk prejudice against businessmen who use cellphones while walking around grocery stores, particularly if you are talking to a friend about sports. But I wouldn't have remembered you beyond that had you not taken the sushi from the cashier and told her, "Don't ring that up first." You then went back to talking about football. You mentioned goals, so I assumed football.

The cashier didn't know what you meant and asked if you wanted the sushi rung up separately. But of course she interrupted your phone conversation, so you didn't respond until she asked a second time. Then you said, "No," and kept talking. The cashier was working class and in her 50s, and it's pretty clear that whether you were polite to her or not wouldn't impact your life or career. And since your wife probably does all the shopping, the cashier didn't have the power to make your life even briefly uncomfortable.

I mean, a grocery is so clearly not your place; other people probably buy your food for you and prepare it for you. It's no wonder you were too busy to pay attention. I mean, you were there and buying stuff, but it wasn't real, everyday food. It was party food, and the cashier didn't have a clue that you wanted her to ring up the sushi somewhere in the middle of the order so that it would be buried far down in the receipt. After all, you paid for the food with your corporate American Express, so you probably wanted the company to pick up your $12 lunch without anybody in accounting noticing when they checked your expense report.

I know that because I've actually checked expense reports. I temped for the high-end cosmetics firm Erno Laszlo, and for about three months, I was the person who fitted the jigsaw puzzle of your receipts against your expenditures, rechecked your math and outlined what you could expense and what you would have to pay for yourself.

For a while, I wore Jones New York suits and carried a Johnson & Johnson corporate American Express and watched surly hotel clerks magically become courteous, even subservient, when I took it out. But as I stood behind you, 41, wearing jeans and a T-shirt and holding a grocery basket full of Kleenex and milk and Citrucel for my 85-year-old mother, all you knew was that I was home at 1 in the afternoon, so I was probably a housewife. This is a judgment you came to without even knowing you came to it.

I'm just background, backdrop, the ceaseless hum of tires outside, the sound of the refrigerator motor. And so you -- without ever having explained to the cashier what you wanted -- shoved the sushi package at her so she would ring it up immediately, right after your Hershey chocolate bites and before the Nestle Crunch.

You stood in front of me, still on the phone, holding the receipt, laughing, while the rest of us in line waited for you to move. The cashier said to me, "The longer I work here, the more I am amazed at the way people act." But you didn't hear her because you weren't at the grocery. You were in cyberspace, the cellular hum, a far more interesting and important place to you.

I had a fantasy of tapping you on the shoulder and telling you to stop talking so that I could explain that I'm actually a novelist, and that I was so impressed with your behavior that I have decided to include the scene in my next novel. About 20,000 or 40,000 people would read about you and instantly assume you are an asshole. The scene perhaps even would strike readers as memorable.

I wanted to tell you this so that you knew who you are. But in the end, I left you in ignorance of your own minor immortality. I hope the party was a success. I hope you enjoyed the football game. I hope someday you are powerless, not forever, but for long enough to develop empathy. And I hope that someday you are wise enough to realize that we are not all what we seem, and that you never know who's watching.

By Maureen F. McHugh

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