When I was just old enough to know that I should control myself in the company of my elders but young enough to know I could still get away with being obnoxiously rambunctious and what was to my parents embarrassingly honest, I found myself confronted by a crisis of conscience.
At that point in my life, I thought of “department stores” as something like cubby holes, only bigger, where adults walked around like they knew what they were there for.
While I hid giggling inside the circular standing racks of women’s blouses just because I knew that somehow it was something I could never get away with someday.
My mother and I had gone to one such department store, and there in the midst of an aisle was standing a ridiculously irate toddler. He wanted something, clearly, from his mother; or rather, for her to buy him something—you know, I wasn’t clear on how all those transactions worked at just over half a decade old—and I crept up to investigate.
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I was an extremely shy child, you understand, but I just had to know what that kid was screaming about—and it ended up being something that I thought was utterly ridiculous.
I thought to myself that he ought not to have been screaming about something so stupid, so utterly needless. But then, it hit me: maybe that’s how Mom thought of the stuff I wanted….
That didn’t make me want it less, whatever “it” might have been—and I would whine, beg, flash those doe eyes kids and seductresses share, and tug at her blouse to get it (thereby prophetically setting my path before me as a philosopher who would disprove the Socratic knowledge-as-virtue tenet). But that was only because I knew I could get away with it.
Another time, in a J. C. Penney, around the same age, the horrifying fate that must befall all firstborn sons and their poor distraught mothers occurred to me: I got lost.
Here in these suffocating cubby holes, these cold, gridded floors with their fake tile and unyielding, Astroturf-esque carpeting that comprised some system that I just couldn’t grasp, I had gotten distracted by a diamond necklace or some such at the jewelry counter.
Obediently not touching the glass, I stared in wide-eyed wonder at this sparkly rainbowmaker; and when my reverie broke, I turned to find—men, women, racks of clothing, an infinite sea of “stuff” and “things”—and precisely zero people who were my mother.
Knowing that this was when the “little kids” always panicked, I gathered myself, determined to outstay the anxiety with faith that Mom would realize where I was and come to rescue me from my present state—uncertain, hands clasped behind my back, rocking from the balls to the heels of my feet across the line between pseudotile flooring and stiff beige carpeting.
Finally (probably after all of ninety seconds), my resolve eroded and I wandered at a near-gallop past all the places I thought she had been, only to find myself more lost than before, somewhere between “soft shiny things Dad likes on t.v.” (lingerie) and “things that would make.
Mom sneeze a lot” (perfume)—my sense of direction has only marginally improved since then. It was somewhere around this time that I passed the escalator, that great unmanned beast of a machine I’d heard of trapping my peers’ feet and ceaselessly moving people to and fro, up and down.
Presently, I gave up hope, and began to tremble, then to softly weep; for it had been an eternity, and I had moved from the spot I’d been left besides, against all admonitions I’d ever received to the contrary.
Lost to my curiosity, inadvertently abandoned light years from home, at the top of the gaping maw of an unfriendly peoplemover, a bad son for making my mother worry (and God only knew what Dad would say when we got home), I presently gave up hope.
I felt more vulnerable standing, so I walked very slowly, sobbing quietly into my sleeve, embarrassed at the looks I got and still anxious about (not) being rediscovered—
But then there was a certain man who greeted me sheepishly. He was an elf to my hobbit, tall and thin and full of years yet still youthful somehow.
(Looking back, he couldn’t have been any more than in his late twenties.) Kind but somehow timid eyes regarded me beneath a concerned brow framed by a close-cropped shock of black hair; he was dressed in a suit with shoulder pads the likes of which no one has seen since 1989.
A regular joe, just a customer in the store, he had found me and asked me if I was lost. Yes, I replied, but truth be told it was Mom who was lost, or both of us, or—oh, I didn’t know!
And he smiled a half-smile that bespoke what I later understood to be amusement and a gentle kindness tempered by the social awareness that he was trying to exude extreme professionalism and yet was talking to a lanky wet-faced six-year-old in the midst of a department store in the middle of the afternoon.
Still nearly smiling, he offered to help me find my mother. Having grown up with pure, 1980s archetypes of what good and evil looked like (the former with geekiness, silliness, bombasticism, or at least, self-consciousness, and the latter with cigarette-smoking, sleazy self-assuredness, and sly turns of phrase).
I trusted him for his half smile and his youth, which won out over his height and suit-wearing.
Rising in a small elevator with no more than this stranger who wore the look of kindness and pathos, my eyes dried. I steeled myself, drawing up my chest and clenching my fists; and with all the power of every bit of manners that had been drilled into me, I thanked the man straight-faced.
But it was the kind of caricature of a straight face that I fancied must have looked like Jean Claude Van Damme in every movie in which I’d ever seen him, so I couldn’t help but smile, then giggle in spite of myself.
In what seemed a miracle tantamount to Philip being translocated by the Spirit, the two invested parties found each other upon the opening of the elevator doors.
My mother was, as she tells it, “boo-hooing,” thinking she’d lost me forever, and I thought how interesting, how meaningful it was that she was just as upset as I had been (”—and then some,” I’m sure she’d interject). She thanked the man profusely, but kept crying till we got to the car, and even as we were pulling out of the parking lot.
Finally, pitying her and thinking she must be going through the same thing I was going through in the store (only outside the store, that whole adults-thinking-abstractly thing), I patted her leg softly and said, “It’s okay, Mom, I’m right here, now. I love you!”
I learned a lot in those department stores, from the ridiculously chainsaw-loud crying toddler who was murderously desperate for something inconsequential, and the half-smile man in a suit who, though a tall stranger, neither offered me candy nor tried to seduce me into his car.
I learned that adults have different priorities than I did; and that if I were to earn worth and respect in their eyes—not as a child, not as a human being, but as someone real, someone worth hearing out—then I was going to have to really think about the things I wanted, and the things I did around them.
And I learned that not all strangers are evildoers and “bad” to talk to, and purposed thenceforth to be kind to children when I became an adult—because maybe they would feel suspended in eternity, abandoned in deep space, just like me.
In short, I began to really ponder how I came across to others, and how important it was to think and be conscious of how I should interact with what, years later, I would learn Sartre and Camus dubbed the Other.
Indeed, how important was maturity itself—to act one’s age was not enough, but to act more than the age that one looked!
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