A gas station. It is 102 degrees outside. I came here to pump gas and—God willing—buy some Chili Cheese Fritos. I’m wearing a surgical mask and rubber gloves.
That last sentence is something I wouldn’t have written four months ago.
In fact, if you were to tell me four months ago that everyone in the whole world would be wearing face masks and latex products, I would have laughed you off your barstool, then told you to buy me another beer.
But here we are. Everyone in the store is wearing a mask. Young, middle-aged, and elderly. Women wear masks that match their outfits. Children wear masks that look like they were manufactured in Candyland.
This world is a very different place. What a difference four months can make.
There are several of us waiting to checkout, but we’re not moving because an old man is holding up the line.
He is drenched in sweat, trembling, and confused. He counts his change on the counter. He is buying a Coke, but he’s having a hard time communicating with the cashier.
I can’t blame him. Surgical masks have changed basic person-to-person communication. Conversations are nearly impossible. And people do not shake hands anymore.
I saw an old friend yesterday and we both resisted the urge to pump hands. It was weird. This is the first time I’ve lived in a world where grown men touch elbows instead of using hearty handshakes.
You definitely wouldn’t have touched elbows four months ago.
The old man is still having problems. Bless his heart. He is every old man you’ve ever known. He is slightly unshaven, wearing rumpled khakis, and a ball cap with a battleship embroidered on front.
Finally, the cashier says, “Sir, don’t worry about the money. You can have the Coke. It’s on me.”
The man stares at her. “Huh?”
“I said it’s free.”
The cashier further demonstrates her point by physically taking cash from her purse and placing it into the drawer. “Free.”
The old man begins thanking her over and again. His weak voice is breaking, it sounds like he’s about to weep. Those of us in line are smiling because this guy could be anyone’s granddaddy.
The old man begins shuffling to the door, but before he gets too far a young man in line calls after him.“Sir?”
The young man is dressed in a neon-orange work shirt and muddy boots. “Do you need a ride?”
The old man points to his good ear.
So Orange Shirt repeats himself, louder this time.
The old man answers, “No, I don’t need a ride, I walked. I live down that way, it’s only a mile, I’ll be okay on foot.”
Everyone sort of looks at each other. He walked? We in the convenience-store line are not liking the sound of this because (a) this man must be in his mid-eighties and (b) it is hotter than hell and half of Alabama outside.
“Please let me give you a ride,” says Orange Shirt.
“I won’t take no for an answer, sir.”
The old man considers the young man’s offer, but he still seems very confused. Maybe it’s the heat that’s getting to him. His clothes are wet, like soggy parchment paper. His pants are sagging. His mask is barely hanging on.
A middle-aged mother in line speaks up. “I live really close to where he’s going, I can drive him.”
The cogs in the old man’s heat-weary mind are cranking. He is trying to keep it together, but he’s getting stressed out. Too many people talking at once.
Orange Shirt insists. “Please sir, it would be my pleasure to give you a ride.”
But Minivan Mom is not giving up. She says, “My van has the air conditioner already running.”
For a few minutes Orange Shirt and Minivan Mom are politely arguing over who will take the old man home. I wish they would just get down onto the floor and leg wrestle like modern civilized adults. My money’s on Mom.
The old man has finally had enough. He says, “Look, thanks for the offers, but I’m okay walking.” He turns to leave.
And this time it’s the cashier who stops him.
“Wait,” the cashier says. “I don’t feel comfortable with you walking in this heat, sir. Please let someone drive you home.”
Everyone in line voices their agreement.
“She’s right,” says one lady.
“Yeah,” says another.
“It’s very hot outside,” adds another man who talks just like me, and lives in my house. He is also deadly handsome.
Soon, six strangers in this small, nondescript American convenience store are deeply concerned for an old man’s well-being. We have never met each other before, and we don’t know this man from Adam’s mother-in-law. But we are people, and that is enough.
Eventually the old man caves in. He agrees to let Orange Shirt give him a ride, and we count this as a minor victory. We almost feel like applauding.
We all watch the old man leave the store and crawl into a white truck with the young workman. The elderly man notices us watching through the glass, so he waves goodbye. Six of us wave back. And it’s hard not to feel good about what just happened here.
“He shouldn’t be walking in this heat,” says Minivan Mom.
“No,” says another. “Too dangerous.”
“He was such a sweet man,” says Minivan.
“He really was.”
“God bless him,” says the cashier. “And God bless everybody here for caring so much.”
Which is something else you might not have heard four months ago.