The salad bar stands apart from the shelves of veggies in the produce section. An approach from any direction would leave one exposed, out in the open. It is independent. Nonpartisan and freewheeling. An island.
On one side of the salad bar are lettuce and tomato and cucumber and red onion and beets and celery and shredded carrots and chickpeas and olives and corn. On the other side are chicken and turkey and hard boiled eggs and quinoa and goat cheese and feta and miniature cubes of ham. At the end of the bar are plastic containers and bottles of dressing.
I make my approach on a Saturday afternoon. I had just come from exercise. I’m wearing shorts. I reach for a plastic container and side step another salad bar patron. I lift the tongs and let them clamp down on a mass of mixed greens. I lift the tongs and release my squeeze, allowing the greens to puddle in the container.
“There you are,” said a voice. Whose voice? The voice of the other salad bar patron. I lift my eyes from the salad bar and shift my stance so that I am about face with my solicitor. He is a bear of a man. Ebony. Perhaps 6’4 or 6’5. Mid 30s. His shirt is sleeveless. He is wearing shorts. Perhaps he too came from exercise.
“Here I am,” I reply coyly, playfully. The ball has been punted.
“I didn’t see you there,” he says. The emphasis on the “see” is intriguing. The way the “s” slides from between his lips. It lingers with a touch of sass. Perhaps spice.
“I’m sorry about that,” I retort, with all the candor of a London gentleman.
“Well I was here first,” he replies. The sass is tinged with a sense of matter-of-factness.
Anxiety washes over me. Had I committed a social faux pas? Had I stuck my nose in the face of all those who came to receive salad before me? Had I merrily skipped past them in line, as if to say that my need for greens and veggies is greater than theirs?
I expand my gaze. The supermarket is utterly bereft of customers on this Saturday afternoon. I would be so daring as to say that my new friend and I make up exactly half the population of the produce section, and certainly the entire population of the salad bar. So why then must I adhere to formalities usually only reserved for a more lively salad bar? No social contract has been violated here. A minor clause at most. This is small potatoes. I decide to say as much. “I didn’t realize there was a line.”
Not breaking eye contact, he raises a heap of iceberg lettuce and lets it fall into his containers like Christmas snow. He says “I think it would have been nice if you waited for me to go.”
What is this? Are we friends? Or is he suggesting I conduct myself with a level of decency that he has come to expect from his fellow man? If so, he is being awfully presumptuous to suggest that I maintain such a level of decency. I do believe I am a decent human man, but perhaps I’m in a rush and need to prepare my salad with haste. I’m not in a rush, but to think he didn’t even consider that as a motivation for my behavior before making his subjective statement fills me with resentment.
I shoot back “I didn’t think it was a big deal.
I emit a chuckle. The absurdity of my situation has forced a lapse in etiquette. Of all the behaviors I ever imagined would bring about criticism, stepping in front of somebody at an empty salad bar was not one of them. I believe that if I can make a salad quickly and without subtracting from the experience of anybody else, I should be allowed to do so. Surely this man comes from a world of more refined structure, and I can appreciate that. But if he cannot compromise in a situation such as this, an empty supermarket on a Saturday afternoon, then he will have to endure a chuckle from me.
A chickpea hits me in the eye.
“Ow,” I say, less impressively than I would have liked.
The man now steps around me and reaches for the grape tomatoes. One by one he places them around the edges of his container as if to frame the iceberg lettuce.
The chickpea has shocked my system. My reality is irreparably altered. I have decided that any respect I once had for this man is gone. I can understand somebody who chooses to stick to their own code of rules, even admire them. But to resort to violence when said code is breached? That puts you in company with some of the vilest men in history. Who’s to say the pain and suffering that could have been negated had calmer heads prevailed in moments of great consequence. This salad bar customer has now demonstrated to me the worst of impulses humanity has to offer. I am angered by his actions, but devastated for his soul.
Since I am redeemable, I petition to that basic decency that salad bar man had once tried to reach in me. I turn to him. A port in stormy waters. I toss a life preserver vest:
“What’s your problem man?”
He spins around and says “toss my salad frat boy.”
I take a step back and drown.
Matthew Speiser is a 25-year-old writer living in New York City. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org