11 Nov Get Out of My Way!

Just yesterday I was in a grocery store and came across a shopper who had blocked the aisle with his cart — he was staring, as though enthralled, at the cereal section. I waited, my cart nearly nosing his. Although his back was turned to me, I assumed that eventually he would sense that somebody was behind him: we humans are good at that; in order to survive our prehistoric times in the wilds, we’ve had to be good at sensing the proximity of other living creatures. But this guy didn’t seem to sense much of anything. So, at last, I said, “Excuse me.” Then he turned, smiled weakly, and moved his cart out of the way. Now, here’s my question: Why, in the first place, would anybody block a grocery aisle with a shopping cart? I mean, it’s like driving a car: there are lanes (implied, at least, in grocery stores); there are places you should and shouldn’t be; there are things you should and shouldn’t do, like block a lane or stand yourself in the middle of an aisle and gaze dreamily at the array of Jell-O boxes.

Have you ever been in a shopping aisle behind someone who walks right down the middle of the lane very slowly and never seems to realize that there are, say, five people lined up behind him/her waiting to pass? I’m talking about personal space and public space — this is something we must negotiate every day. And it is truly a negotiation, as we maneuver down a crowded sidewalk or sidle past a fellow shopper in a crowded store. My point is this: we must be aware of the ways our personal space impinges on public space. This awareness is the bedrock of the thing we call “society” and, by extension, “civilization.” Even monkeys have this awareness. But a disturbing number of humans do not have this awareness. I’m not just talking about people who are dreamers and can’t quite get with the program. I’m talking about people who, apparently, live in their own private pods and don’t seem to understand that there are others in the world who need to get on with life too.

Let me register first my surprise at these people. It must be wonderful to live so comfortably oblivious to the rest of the world and the people who inhabit it. I myself grew up with two older brothers who taught me the benefit (for personal safety) of getting out of the way — and staying out of the way. As a result, I am hyper-aware of the space I take up: I am always looking behind me and around me to make sure that I am in nobody’s way.

Let me regeister, second, my concern. It is likely that nowadays, with so many “personal” consumer goods that encourage self-encapsulation — like iPods and Bluetooth phone ear-inserts — that we are becoming a nation of Pod People: concerned only about the private worlds that contain us. Most disturbingly, we see this on the road as a driver, glibly talking into her cell phone, cuts us off at an intersection.

Ironically, we Americans are sticklers when it comes to how we behave when standing in line to buy tickets or wait for entrance to an event. Our outrage is nearly universal when somebody violates the implied rules by breaking into a line. That said, I have no answer as to how we might sensitize people in other circumstances to be mindful of how they should share public space. But that’s the point to press: once you are outside your home, you are in shared space. The challenge for me is to remain civil when I encounter what seems most uncivil behavior. No, it’s not an insult to me, personally, when I come upon a shopper who is blocking the aisle as though he were simply in his own garage, looking for a garden rake. But it is an insult to the communal good — because one person is taking more than his fare share. That’s when I’m tempted to snap, “Wake the f**k up and get out of the way!” I’ve never said this, of course. Instead, I smile a painfully polite smile, then say, “Excuse me,” just the way my mother and father taught me.