Feeling Like A Jerk

Posted: April 27, 2013

The Friendly City Files

I’m in line at the grocery store and an older man — which, relative to me, is an increasingly narrow segment of the population — waits until all his purchases are scanned, bagged and in the cart before he reaches in his pocket to pull out his wallet and start writing a check.

I shake my head and think, “Couldn’t you have gotten a start on that at some point during the last five minutes?”

A couple of minutes later, I see him in the parking lot looking unsure and almost lost as he searches for his car. It’s obvious he can’t remember where he parked.

I remember how frustrated I got in line and cringe, feeling like a jerk.

I’m driving out of my neighborhood and the car in front of me is going 10 miles an hour. Literally. Sure, it’s a neighborhood and, hey, safety first …  but still: Ten miles an hour?

Several excruciating minutes later, I ease past onto U.S. 33. Inside the car is an older woman clutching the steering wheel. She looks unsure and almost frightened as she tries to navigate what she evidently sees as a harsh and unforgiving environment.

I remember how frustrated I got as I drove behind her and cringe, feeling like a jerk.

I’m at the gym and want to use a tricep machine, but there’s a guy on it. No problem, even though he’s using it incorrectly. (How incorrectly? Let’s just say “way, way wrong” and leave it at that.) I wait, well off to the side, figuring he’ll be done in a second.

But he’s not. He stays there. And he stays there. I go away, do something else, come back …  and he’s still there. So, I do the “ease over and hope the person using the machine either takes the hint or asks if I want to work in” move. No luck.

Great, I think, and start to get frustrated; I always try to be conscious of others and I expect them to do likewise.

Eventually, he finishes. As he moves to the next machine he says, “I’m not so sure I was doing that right.” I smile, but inside I’m thinking “Hey, no doubt, dude.”

He keeps talking. “It’s my first time here,” he says. “Doctor said I needed to stop smoking. So, I did. Quit cold turkey. But I gained 28 pounds and now he says I need to lose some weight. The lady at the front desk says this stuff will do it, so I’m giving it a try.”

Immediately, I’m taken back. How many people do exactly what their doctor says? (I don’t.) How many people actually quit smoking when their doctor tells them to? (Can’t be many, otherwise tobacco companies would already be out of business.) How many people try to lose weight just because their doctor told them to? (Ditto for fast food restaurants.)

Plus, his lack of pretentiousness and self-importance is touching. Unlike most of us, he doesn’t think he knows better. He seems to genuinely trust people who know more than him.

Like the older guy in the grocery store and the older lady in the car, who were doing the best they can in a world they find increasingly stressful and even a little scary, he’s giving it a go in an environment where fitting in and feeling comfortable can be really hard when you don’t know what you’re doing …  and you don’t feel like you belong.

So, instead of “minding my own business,” which is the way I typically rationalize keeping to myself, for once I stepped out of my shell and showed him how to use the tricep machine. He was sincerely, almost movingly, grateful.

A few minutes later, I saw him sitting backward on a chest machine, turning what should have been a pressing motion into pulling. He looked at me and smiled sheepishly. “I’m not getting this one right either, am I?” he asked.

I grinned and said, “No, not quite,” and then I showed him how.

And for once, I didn’t feel like a jerk.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a ghostwriter and Inc. Magazine columnist. He can be reached at www.blackbirdinc.com.

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