I've been stuck in Athens, Georgia for the better part of a month now. It isn't the worst place to be. The food is good, the beer is cheap and I have always had a weakness for a girl with a southern drawl. Still, as my temporary internment drew on, I found myself slipping into a state of ennui I have not felt since the last two years of my marriage.
So, being an adherent to Harvey Danger's axiom, "If you're bored, then you're boring," I decided to conduct a little sociological experiment. Like all sociological experiments, mine is completely unscientific, and the results should be taken for what they're worth....little to nothing.
My foray into the lab-ratting of humanity began innocuously enough. I had gone into a Dollar Tree, because I'm not paying more than a buck for Gummies Bears or a toothbrush. I noticed, almost immediately, that the woman behind the counter seemed completely miserable.
She was a frail, older, lady with sullen eyes, bony fingers and thinning grey hair, teased up and dyed a vivid purple. As I approached the register with my discount loot and bright, amiable smile, the look I received back from this woman could only be described as contempt.
I had noticed this look, this combination of eye roll and glare several times before; at the grocery store, convenience store, fast food places, Target. There is a palpable sense of disdain from some in the service sector toward some of their customers.
Maybe it stems from socio-economic disparities. Or maybe those jobs just suck the joy out of you, and seeing a smiling face in the middle of an eight hour shift makes you want to slap the grin right off a guy's face. Who knows?
The underlying cause is not nearly as important as the solution.
As I approached that checkout counter and felt the daggers being stared my way from beneath that ridiculous violet coiffure, I resisted the urge to go silent and simply not interact. Instead, I kept smiling and said, "I love your hair. That is a beautiful color."
The way she lit up, you'd think I was the Publishers Clearinghouse Prize Patrol knocking on her door with a bunch of balloons and a comically large check. Her disapproving glare transformed, instantly, into bright, beautiful, almost tearful joy.
I listened and "Mmmhmm'd" through a two minute history of hair and wigs and the quest for just the right purple. Then I was on my way with a sack full of candy, a cold Mellow Yellow and spring in my step.
It struck me that many of the seemingly miserable people I encounter each day in places like that usually have one thing about them that stands out. Something bright or bold, quirky or comical. I wondered if that one one unique thing, standing in stark contrast with the rest of their weary visage, although invariably hideous, could be their source of joy.
I set about to test my hypothesis and found no shortage of subjects. The woman at Captain D's (don't judge, I'd never been to one) with the vulgarly long, bejeweled, acrylic coffin nails that made me nearly vomit in my mouth at the thought of her touching my food. The portly girl at the coffee house wearing bright green Doc Marten's beneath her goth black, full length skirt. The strangely sexy, tattooed chick at the Lazy Shopper with azure pigtails.
Each one greeted my cheerful countenance with varying degrees of scorn. Yet, the second I complimented them on their source of joy, I became to them like a dear, old friend. Smiles bloomed, conversation flowed, personal details were shared. I even got a hug from an old woman at Walgreens who wore an absurd, flowered hat better suited for the cheap seats at Churchill Downs than Tuesday afternoon errands.
My experiment was a success. And though my motives may have been duplicitous, my days, and hopefully a small part of the days of those dour souls I encountered, have been a lot brighter.
I don't think this works quite as well on the happy or the beautiful. People who are generally content tend to enjoy fixating on their petty discontents. But for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, simply complimenting their hideous sources of joy can transform a trip to Walmart from a tour of Dachau into a stroll through Disneyland.
I know...I'm an asshole, but I'm going to keep doing it. I like the smiles.