My Ethics Hero: Some Guy In The Harris Teeter Meat Section

I was doing some quick shopping yesterday at a large Harris Teeter supermarket in Alexandria, Virginia. My list from my wife included an option—always a doorway to a shopping confidence crisis—between a whole chicken, a small marinated chicken, or two large chicken breasts. I had decided on the marinated bird, but couldn’t find them where they usually were, and was more or less frozen, like the “hosts” in “Westworld” get when Anthony Hopkins wants them quiet, staring where I expected them to be.

“I’m going to buy one of them, the question is, which one?” a jaunty, relaxed voice close behind me said. At that moment I realized I had been staring at turkeys (I wasn’t there to buy one), and I turned around, not startled but curious, to face a broadly smiling, handsome, bearded African-American man about my age, probably a little younger.

“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, smiling back. Being habitually disorganized, I am typically shopping  for everything the day before Thanksgiving.

“Oh, no, not for me!” he said, laughing. And he told me that he was going to cook up one or more turkeys for his church on Sunday. We talked about the ways he cooked his turkeys; he preferred to smoke them. He was also a grilling specialist. He took out his phone and showed me pictures of his specialty, ribs. We talked about his favorite recipes, and his church, his family, and its Thanksgiving plans, as I told him about mine. I mentioned that my wife was our traditional Thanksgiving chef, and that got the discussion turned around to marriage. We both have been married a long time, and he took me by the shoulders and talked intensely about commitment in relationships.

I had a twenty-minute conversation with this delightful stranger, just standing by the meat section. Finally, I announced  that I had to finish my assignment, and wished him wonderful holidays. I offered him my hand and introduced myself; he shook it firmly, and gave his name in return. Then we spontaneously hugged each other, which I never do, being from Boston and trained to be reticent in such intimacies, he flashed that terrific smile, and we parted.

My encounter with this exuberant gentleman suddenly made me feel good about life, my community, the country and the human race as I had not for a very long time. I think we’ll be all right. All that had happened was that a stranger just reached out and began a conversation about something two people shared, showing openness, kindness, human interest and trust, and a connection was made. That’s all it takes.

I start conversations with strangers a lot; it was something my father did. He was better at it than I am, and my friend in the Harris Teeter meat section is obviously a grandmaster. But as the holidays approach, and I keep reading these essays about families boycotting each other because of Trump-Clinton divides, it is so obvious that my dad and my turkey buddy are the wise ones.  We’re all just human beings together on a short and unpredictable trip: we should  just focus on that, and reach out.  Why is it so hard?

I was especially touched by the incident because I have been traveling all week, and became progressively depressed and amazed at how assiduously everyone ignores each other these days. I was frequently in groups of ten or more where everyone had their eyes glued to their electronic devices, never looking up, never speaking to anyone, except maybe over the phone. In Tuscon, I ate alone in a restaurant and looked around for another solo diner to ask to join me. I couldn’t spot anyone not staring at a smart phone. The married couple next to me each stared at their own devices, and, I swear, never said two words to each other or had their eyes meet during the whole meal. Creepy.

This can’t be a healthy social development, and we have to work at making our communities communicate again. Are our young losing the ability and the inclination to just reach out and trust a stranger? What kind of world will they live in, if encounters like mine yesterday are regarded as undesirable, or even threatening?

Never mind: yesterday gave me hope. I was reminded that there are a lot of wonderful, interesting, kind, loving people out there, and that they are worth finding and enjoying while we can. The best way to fight cynicism, distrust and acrimony is to just reach out, be the best human being you can be to all, and hope to send a spark of light into the uncertain darkness, even if it glows but a few minutes. I’m convinced—my unexpected friend convinced me. I may never see him again; I probably won’t. In the brief moment we were together, though, he made my life, and perhaps the rest of it, a little bit better.

It all adds up. In the end, isn’t that what being ethical is about?

The episode reminded me of a line from Mary Chase’s comedy, “Harvey.” The TV stations used to play the Jimmy Stewart film version, released in the year I was born, around holiday time in Boston; I doubt few under the age of 30 are familiar with it now. The play stuck with me because when I saw it on Broadway decades ago, the whole cast came to the edge of the stage, called out my name, and began lecturing me. I wanted to crawl under a seat.

Just kidding.

No, the play stuck with me because it was a favorite of my dad, who had seen it on Broadway in its original run. There is a moment in the play when Elwood P. Dowd, an eccentric alcoholic who claims that he is accompanied by a six-foot anthropomorphic rabbit named Harvey, explains his life philosophy:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

I will, Elwood. Now I just have to practice it

35 thoughts on “My Ethics Hero: Some Guy In The Harris Teeter Meat Section

  1. ” I start conversations with strangers a lot; it was something my father did.”
    My Dad, too…after he passed, at nearly every store I stepped in, I was treated to a story about him, about favors he did for people he met in the supermarket who had dropped their wallet, or needed a jump start, how he always made them laugh. He’s gone 10 years now, but a rush of memories came back while I was reading this.

    What a wonderful encounter! That’s really heartwarming. A lovely break from the ugly currents swirling through the media and social media.

  2. Great story and great insights. And I have always loved that line from Harvey, among quite a few notable lines.

    I’m sure you brought some light into that gentleman’s life as well, Jack. So keep talking to strangers.

  3. Re: the couple glued to their phones. Whenever my wife and I catch each other doing that, we send a flirty text to the other. That immediately gets us back to talking.

    • HA. Alex, my hub and I sometimes take them out to have those kinds of conversations we can’t have in Burger King while the kids climb the playplace stuff we always swore we wouldn’t ever let our children frolic in when we were kidless… We amuse ourselves a LOT, but a bystander might not understand. Except when we cackle and wink at each other like idiots after reading the screen…

  4. My family and I decided to have separate Thanksgivings. We love each other, but we just can’t do it right now. It is not about the election, it is about our underlying values which have always been in conflict. This election just brought them to the breaking point. Ironically, it was the conservatives who asked for the divide. We hopefully will be fine by Easter.

    • I hope so too, but with the atmosphere of mistrust and deliberate misstating of the other persons viewpoint that has become the standard form of social discourse I don’t hold out much hope. Family will be destroyed one way or another it seems.

    • After a ton of Huffpost, Jezebel, and like articles that talked about it being ok to unfriend, exclude, and otherwise marginalize Trump supporters because you don’t have to even be reasonably polite to those holding such odious values, it should come as no surprise that some of the Trump supporters might do a little excluding of their own. I believe I am perfectly within my rights to exclude, ignore, and be rude to those who insult, belittle, and degrade me as a hater, xenophobe, racist, and all around rotten person, which liberals do with gusto. This is part of what put Donald Trump in the White House, and it’s part of what will enable the right to essentially ignore its critics for quite a while.

      • Well, don’t assume that’s what’s going on in my family Steve. It’s more that I keep my mouth shut because there is no point in discussing politics with them. I do call them out on any racist remarks though — mostly because I don’t want my children thinking that kind of language is okay. And then the fighting starts ….

        • I didn’t assume anything, since I don’t know your family and there’s not really enough detail here to guess where their thinking is at. I was speaking generically of those on the right who are doing like your family is doing. My family is almost all either conservative or libertarian, and we are NOT politically correct by any means. We tell jokes that are politically incorrect, we do bad accent work, we tell stories that paint the politically protected in a bad light, and so on. My sister-in-law drew the line at me telling my niece the story of the Five Chinese Brothers in dialect, though.

            • That’s neither funny nor anything other than straight-up bigotry. I may make politically incorrect jokes, but most of them are directed at the kernels of truth that underly most stereotypes or uncomfortable facts. It’s one thing to play on the fact that a lot of American cities have been under black, Democratic leadership for decades and haven’t gotten very far. It’s one thing to point up the fact that many -ists (atheists, feminists, socialists) love poking fun (or just poking) but can’t stand others poking fun or poking back at them . It’s one thing to humorously point out that a lot of groups look the other way on members of their own group doing things they’d never tolerate from members of another.

              However, to presume to dictate who your grandkids can dictate based on race and religion is out and out bigotry and asking for a “guess who’s coming to dinner” situation. I have to say, I’d be surprised if my niece started dating someone of a different race, but I’d never presume to tell her she couldn’t. I broke the color barrier myself some time ago when I briefly was in love with a woman from China (it didn’t end well, but not because of her background, because she was a user and emotional vampire).

  5. This is terrific.. it serves to remind us that there are people who are inately good with their only agenda being to be open and friendly and not even thinking about judging. These people are still out there and in reality we could join their ranks .. well some could, probably not the republicans though……
    JUST KIDDING! I couldn’t resist…
    thanks for sharing this, it’s a step in the right direction.

      • There are more than a few family members I would boycott for that very same reason. Unfortunately, my dad is of the opinion that it’s better to grit your teeth now and then rather than leave family members wondering if you really were busy that time they asked to get together, and the time before that, and the time before that…

    • And there’s where a fine line is drawn. We have a loud mouth liberal in our family who won’t shut the hell up about politics, and that was before the Election, afterwards…well, I don’t see how anyone enjoys him, certainly the other liberal members of the family are starting to get annoyed.

      Well, even before the election he became so overbearing we stopped inviting him to several events. But that’s where politics becomes assholery.

  6. While Harvey is one of my favorite movies, Id never seen it live and last year when I heard a local company was holding auditions for it I jumped at the chance to be part of it.

    The only part I wanted was the cab driver. They spoke to me about the judge but I made it clear I preferred the cab driver just because of his scene at the end of the play.

  7. Wonderful post. The good thing about talking to strangers is that some mode of civility still exists in these situations. One does not generally delve into politics with a stranger in a grocery store, for example; with family and friends it’s almost impossible unless you lay down guidelines against it, because the daily life moments are known or already shared. Interestingly, the matters one shares with strangers can be more intimate in their way than those shared with known persons — to which your post attests — because there is no baggage there, no preconceived notions about the speaker or the listener, and no worry at all that anything said will come back to haunt you later. So real attitudes toward real things and real kindness can shine through.

    Re the texting issue. Do you honestly think people are texting other people all day long? Possible, because this particular form of ‘distance communication’ is so popular. Worst case though is that they are updating their Facebook page with details on where they are, what they’re buying or what they’re eating. As if the minutiae of everyone’s daily life are really that interesting. My favorite Facebook post remains” “Sushi tonight. Yumm!”

    PS You misspelled Tucson. It’s T-U-C-SON not T-U S-CON. And phonetically, the correct spelling works, at least a bit better than your spelling. Your spelling would mean a pronunciation of “TUSS-KON.” Just mentioning.

    • Grocery lists include options because otherwise a key ingredient might be missed. If Jack had come home with no chicken at all, then there would be no dinner other than mashed potatoes. Wives have learned this lesson the hard way.

      Personally, I hate grocery shopping and I am a better cook than my husband so that is how we usually divide this labor. However, it usually takes me more time to create a list (which includes all the options as well as a stern written reminder to ask for help if he can’t find an ingredient) so I still end up doing the shopping half the time.

    • I should add: the only production of “Harvey” I have ever seen was done by a high school’s theatrical club. It was great. I like Jimmy Stewart. And I have watched plenty of his movies, but never “Harvey.” Go figure.

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