German students fencing in the 1820s.
The other day, I stopped to give myself a talking-to. I’m worried about you, I said sternly. Your constant outrage is not healthy, and all these self-righteous interventions with strangers are completely out of control. I didn’t want to be the one to say it, but you’re turning into your mother.
I was appropriately horrified. I knew what angel-me was talking about: the time my mom slammed on the brakes to leap out of the car and accost the neighborhood kids whose snowball had sailed into the street. Or the time she yelled at a preteen for smoking on the sidewalk in front of the rec center. Or the time she lectured a car full of my classmates about their grammar.
It wasn’t just that I’d found these incidents humiliating, although cowering while my mom railed at my contemporaries wasn’t a great memory. Even at the time, I’d felt sure that she wasn’t getting through to them—merely making herself a laughingstock, an uptight fuddy-duddy failing even to attempt to connect to her audience, captive though they were. I guess I felt like somehow it was about her—although admittedly, as I huddled in the car, I may have been projecting.
Clearly, I have the same tendencies now. Maybe a part of me was secretly impressed with her reckless courage. Anyway, lately I’ve been absolutely spoiling for fights, whether it’s with nail-clipping boors on trains or rude patrons in supermarkets. I feel like some young sport in a Georgette Heyer novel, always trying to engage people in duels.
I was in a very dowdy neighborhood shoe store looking at the SAS comfort shoes, when I heard an elderly woman approach a clerk and ask, “Are you going to help me or not?!”
I stood to attention like a pointer. In the interests of customer service, this poor employee would probably not be able to speak frankly to this hideous woman. Clearly, I’d have to intervene. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I dropped the beige Tripad Comfort moccasin and made a beeline for the Merrell section where the confrontation was in progress. “Aren’t you Mark?” the horrible woman was saying, still angry, but beginning to lose a bit of her conviction.
“No,” the guy answered. “I’m Tom.”
Just then, another clerk appeared, bearing a pile of shoe boxes. “Here you go!” he said, very upbeat. “I also brought up a few similar styles for you to try. We didn’t have the yellow in a seven, but I brought it in the tan for size, and we can order it.”
“Oh my God,” the woman said, paling. “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Tom said.
“Oh my God, I thought you were Mark,” she said.
I glanced up sharply. But they did sort of look alike—medium height, balding, with brown hair and white shirts.
“We do look alike,” said Mark.
I still kind of wanted to butt in and mention that, even had she been right, it wouldn’t have justified her tone. But I didn’t get the chance.
“I’m so sorry,” she was repeating. “Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed.”
I was sort of disappointed. Then we, me and I, left the store and had our talk.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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