In “A Man Without a Country” Kurt Vonnegut describes a day of physical transactions: buying a manila envelope from a general store, going to the post office to purchase stamps, dropping off an item in the mailbox, and so on. He chit chats with the people at the counter and listens to conversations spoken in a different language while he stands in line. He then returns home pleased because he’s “had one hell of a good time.” It’s the human interactions and experiencing the world through all five senses that is invigorating to him, that enables him to feel part of a community. When I have a day of simple errand running, as in I am actually out and about interacting with human beings, I can’t help but think of this narrative and how similar it is to how I feel upon my arrival home.
Today was no exception. I had fun. I felt connected to everyone, even the douchebag behind the meat counter at the grocery store. I traveled from one part of town to the next, in no particular hurry and in no particular order. Cup of coffee, button-down shirt, cheese and capers, kitchenware, herbs. It was through this network of physical transactions for products that I formed my day’s narrative, one which included vibrant smells, tastes, touches, sights, and sounds that were all my own as well as those who were near me. I could have kissed every single person I saw today, even the jerk-hole who gave me smug advice on hamburger meat.
It’s funny how simple social exchanges elevate the mood and relax the mind. I spend a day around town and somehow I begin to sound like that long-haired, barefoot guy in fleece standing around the bonfire poetically stating the power of love and drum circles. Anyone got some Nag Champa? He distributed Nag Champa. Like, he always had some at every party we went to. A whole bouquet just burning. (For the record, I really liked that guy. He gave the best hugs and smelled like delicious incense.)
I must emphasize the plural here. It’s the multiple interactions I had that filled my day with positive vibes and a sense of community. If I had stopped after the grocery store, I would have been neutrally impacted. My network would still be 1: just me.
When I questioned the butcher on what blend of beef is best for burger, noting that I had thought it would be chuck and brisket, he flat out told me I was wrong. He might as well have added “You dumb shit” afterward because his tone clearly expressed that sentiment. My experience here was negative. I wanted to disassociate myself from him, from the world.
And the assault actually didn’t cease after that one exchange! He continued to cast doubt on my ability to even research food. Oh yeah, you went to a blog written by a chef? Pshaw, he doesn’t know squat. Slightly tearing up after reluctantly picking up two cold packages of meat he had finally recommended after diminishing my existence, I made my way to the check-out.
The girl there had dreads and wore a perfume that smelled both floral and spicy. She carefully scanned my items, examining each one as if she was considering buying them, too. This was a good thing, because she noticed rot on one of my mandarins. Ooh, let me get you a new one. I’ll be right back.
Feeling much better about my life because someone took the time to care, I awaited her return. She brought back a fine specimen of fruit and proceeded with scanning. Beep, beep, beep. An older lady interrupted my check-out process looking for a particular brand of ginger cookies. She smiled at me apologetically as she chatted with the girl handling my groceries, distracting her from her duties. I didn’t care. I was curious to know what these cookies were. They must have been good because the girl closed down the checkout lane to help the woman search for them. I thought this was quite nice of her. So my experience here was positive. Net zero on personal enrichment. I must go on.
Leaving the store, I continued my day to visit local coffee shop #1—fresh ground beans, warm maple latte, students at tables busily typing on laptops, Flaming Lips on the stereo—I took it all in, happily burned my tongue on my drink and headed back out onto the street. I moved on to set off the alarm at the clothing store. Equally embarrassed as I, the sales associate fondled the shirt to discover a hidden trigger for the alarm she had forgotten to remove. Balling it back up to fit in my bag, she blushed as she handed it to me. I smiled and smoothed out the soft cotton, refolding it to prevent wrinkles. +2
On my way back to the car, I ran into some friends. I petted their dog, gave out a hug, and made a few jokes. The sun was warm on my face making my cheeks rosy, effectively hiding my shyness. Last stop was coffee shop #2. This time it was for a gift, not a drink. The barista expressed gratitude that I hadn’t ordered something from the bar that he would need to make. He seemed frazzled, but pleasantly frazzled. I needed a bag for the jewelry I purchased. He searched the entirety of a cabinet except for the drawer labeled “Gift bags, tissue paper, boxes” to find a proper container for me. He came up short. Likely because the items he needed were in that drawer he somehow neglected to open. Amused by this, I happily accepted a used plastic baggie he had freed up seconds ago by removing its previous tenant. Why didn’t he just check in that drawer? It didn’t matter. I was content with my exchange. +5
My day was so simple, yet so fulfilling. I almost feel silly putting an emphasis on doing stuff. But through my doings I rediscovered my senses which at times, I tend to forget exist. We sit so long in front of our computers, our devices, our TVs, that we (I) forget what it’s like to have ordinary interactions with others using our mouths, ears, hands, eyes, nose. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something.” I think he was right.