Wednesday, July 27, 2011

474. I Cussed Out A Stranger

Not really. Almost.

There I was at the grocery store, renting a steam cleaner to clean the (free) butter-colored suede armchair one of my girlfriends gave me (because she felt sorry for me and my faux leather chair that was shedding strips of plastic all over my living room floor?). Charlotte had said, not unkindly, “MOV, do you know anyone who might want this old Restoration Hardware chair that we simply don’t have room for? I hate to donate it or put it on Craig’s List because it cost, like, a thousand gazillion infinity dollars when it was new a few years ago.” I practically jumped thorough the phone lines when she mentioned this chair. Internally, I told myself, “Stay calm, stay cool, don’t let on how much you want that amazing chair.” Out loud I said, “I’ll be there wtih my husband's truck in 10 minutes!”

But I digress.

I was now at the grocery store at the “Help” counter where you go to rent steam cleaners or ask which aisle has Mint Milano cookies (Aisle 17, just so you know), when this 18-year-old boy scout walks up to the counter.

“Pack of Marlboro Lites,” he said.

“No problem,” responded the clerk politely.

“Are you kidding me?” I said loudly and not so politely.

“Excuse me?” said freckle face.

“What, are you like, 12? Are you kidding me? Smoking?”

I need to mention here that I had not just the American Express card with me in order to pay for the steam cleaner rental, I also had my lovely sons, Tall and Short with me to witness Random Acts of Mommy Craziness.

“Excuse me, madam?” said freckly face, again (yeah—he called me “Madam.” Might as well have called me “Granma” and asked for my AARP card).

“Well, my mother has Stage 4 lung cancer and is slowly dying,” I said, not really sure who’s vocal chords were making these words, “You should quit smoking now while you still can.”

His face turned white, like the shell of an egg. Then his exterior cracked like one, too.

“I’m sorry she’s dying,” he said, as he slipped the green bill with Alexander Hamilton’s face on it to the clerk (who was minding her own business and not mentioning any cancer-stricken relatives to hapless strangers at this moment in time), “that must be very hard for you.”

“Hard for me?” I asked, my face hardening like freshly-poured cement in summer heat, “How about hard for her?”

He looked at me.

I looked at him.

Tall looked at both of us and wished that everyone involved would just disappear, like smoke.

“She’s smoked for more than 40 years. She has tumors in her lungs. It’s hard for her to breathe.” Here I did not mention the successful lung surgery that had bought her another year or so of breathing without a ventilator, “I am the Voice of Your Future.”

Now Tall was really wishing he could slink away, far, far away from his crazy mother.

“Stop,” he hissed at me, “You don’t even know this gentleman!”

I immediately cursed myself for teaching my children to call strangers “gentleman.”

“You. Must. Quit. Smoking.” I stared him down, willing him to fight with me.

What would happen next? Would the clerk summon the police and have the bizarro trouble-maker (me) unceremoniously carted off, like a shoplifter on a spree? Would freckles hurl a litany of profanities in my direction? Would I respond in kind? (I was guessing I might.)

“Thank you, ma’am, you’re right.” He peered into my eyes, his crystal blue eyes fresh like afternoon sky. Then he turned to Tall and said, “Your mom is very smart.” He walked away, cigarettes in hand.

What just happened here?

(“Marlboros Or VirginiaSlims?”)


  1. As someone who lost a really wonderful father too soon because he could not give up his only vice, I have to applaud you for what you did. When I worked at a store, I SO wanted to refuse to sell tobacco to pregnant women, but I needed my job and couldn't make my own laws.

  2. thank you for saying that, Paula. I appreciate the support. I was really questioning myself all day after that little run-in. Hopefully the freckle-faced kid was questioning himself too.


  3. It takes a village to raise a child. The world needs more people who have the courage to stand for what they believe. Kudos.

  4. Peakview,

    Thank you. Maybe the image of crazy me haunts poor freckly and he has given up smoking out of fear? Fear of lung cancer and/ or fear of running into me again? at 5'8", I am quite imposing and intimidating, just ask some of my former passengers at United ("I said, PUT YOUR SEATBELT ON RIGHT NOW!").


  5. Hmmm. I don't know. On one hand, standing up for your beliefs is good, but on the other hand, it isn't your problem, and making people feel guilty about smoking or whatever is not your place. I, personally, think that if someone chooses to smoke, it's their issue. Whether it bothers you or not, trying to talk people out of things like smoking generally does no good. Threats of lung cancer and emphysema and COPD generally won't make anyone want to quit, it'll just make them wish you'd stop talking. I know I would have felt that way when I started smoking. Though I've quit since, I don't think being told by someone I didn't know that I should would have done anything but irritate me and wish that the person would stick to parenting their own kids.

  6. It is very hard to stop smoking. He is also probably at the age where you think you are going to live forever. Perhaps once he feels his own mortality, he will remember you and what you said and actually quit.

  7. I smoked for thirty years before I finally had my light-bulb moment of, "Hey, if I keep doing this, it IS going to kill me", and I quit.

    I'm sure the light-bulb moment is different for everyone. Maybe for that kid in the store, YOU were his light-bulb moment. Maybe he smoked that last pack of cigs, thinking about what you said, and then quit. Maybe you saved his life.

  8. yikes, who knows! heated issue. I am not sure what came over me in that moment at the grocery store, it was like watching a train wreck and thinking, "Wait, I don't have to be an innocent bystander, I CAN open my mouth and say something here!" It does not bother me that he smokes. What bothers me (ok it does bother me) is that he probably thinks it makes him look cool. Oh, my parting words to him (forgot to write this in the blog): "And by the way, girls do NOT find smoking sexy or attractive." He laughed at that.

    thanks to all who wrote.


  9. Maybe you can take solace in the fact that most teenagers who try smoking do not go on to become regular smokers, let alone heavy smokers. I, unfortunately was one who continued on to smoke 2+ packs a day. I did manage to quit, though.

  10. I guess what it is is this: freckle face's mom most likely does not know he smokes. When Tall and Short become teen-agers, if one of them went to the store to buy cigarettes, I would hope and pray that some busy-body mom (like I was that day) would step in and say something. Kids and teens do things impulsively, things that (unfortunately) can have very negative repercussions later on.



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