Sometimes, you have to look.
Just two blocks from our church office, there's a little harmless-looking intersection in a quiet residential area that hosts two or three accidents a month. It's shocking to me how often I turn left on 48th and see those flashing lights up ahead, right in the always-same spot on that corner. To my knowledge, the accidents aren't usually serious. Once, a teenager plowed into a telephone pole, but he was leaning against a fence when I drove by, talking on his cell phone and gesturing wildly.
Occasionally, I'll see someone sitting on the edge of their car seat with a newly applied neck brace, talking to paramedics.
I had another opportunity to act maturely last week, and I blew it again. I really wanted to drive by with my head straight and my eyes trained on the horizon. And victory was right there, right within my reach. But just at the last moment, I swiveled and locked eyes with a sheepish-faced driver as he sat cross-legged on the grass, waiting for a ride or a ticket or a lecture. He was still sitting there twenty minutes later when I made my return drive-by, and again, while trying not to look, I swapped gazes with him.
Inside this body, I'm really twelve.
I'm working on it. But it's tough to switch yourself out of "have to know" mode once you've engaged. I find it difficult to not listen in on arguments at the grocery store or gut-spilling sessions that occur one table over from me at Starbucks. As a writer, I feel it's practically my duty to observe and report what's happening in the world. At least that's what I remind myself when I'm scribbling on the back of my Starbucks napkin.
I remember one evening at Rotten Ralph's, the now defunct and forever missed family cafe in nearby Arlington, when Dave and I settled in a booth to wait for our fries and chocolate shakes and I started scanning the room, the way you must when you've just arrived somewhere. I'd only taken note of a few interesting characters when my eyes landed on two to beat all the rest.
They happened to be sitting directly across the aisle from us, which posed an immediate problem for me. Staring from a distance of less than ten feet is palpable. It must be all that curious energy rippling through the air, but I've almost never been successful at staring from such a close distance. On this night, however, I had no choice but to throw caution to the wind.
The men were probably in their late fifties or early sixties. They looked to be farmers, or maybe it was just the overalls of the one and the suspenders of the other that led me to the conclusion. Then again, it may have been the matching John Deere hats they wore--or the fact that Arlington is farm country. It's not important. To me, they were farmers.
The farmer in overalls--gray and white striped bibs, no less--opened a fresh copy of the Little Nickel and started perusing ads. I didn't even have to look over his shoulder to know he was looking in the feed section. Probably took a quick gander at tractors before he turned the page. As he read, he chomped on a toothpick. I could tell whenever a particular ad caught his eye because he'd pause in his gnawing for a count of five, four, three, two, one, and then both the chewing and the scanning would pick up again.
The farmer wearing suspenders--and they were red--didn't bother with the Little Nickel. No doubt he had a barn full of hay already and wasn't the type to tease himself needlessly with tractor ads. For the most part, he sat and balanced his crossed arms on his very broad belly.
But here's where things really took an interesting turn. As I was sitting there soaking in all those lovely details (and scribbling notes, I must admit), the suspender wearer got a notion to groom himself. For some odd reason, it occurred to him that this might be the perfect opportunity to clean out his ears. I didn't know that's what he was thinking, of course, until he took out his car keys, surveyed the bunch, selected one--I think it was gold--and stuck it in his ear.
My mouth may have dropped open. I can't remember. But I do remember clearly that I had this little conversation with myself: Shannon, if you keep looking, you'll never be able to eat your fries ... Yes, I know, but I can't not look.
He swirled it back and forth for about five twists, and then he pulled the key out, held it up close and squinted at it, and then swiped his thumbnail across the groove to clean it out for the next go-round.
I wanted to stop looking. Oh, how I wanted to stop. But I didn't, and he didn't catch me, and he kept cleaning and cleaning and cleaning, and by the time our food arrived, I had, indeed, completely lost my appetite.
When I began this little post, I did so with a naive confidence that I'd be able to find a really powerful, really poignant ending to tie together all the loose threads I left along the trail. Interestingly, that didn't happen. So let me just leave you with a few tips, a few bits of random advice:
Drive safely--especially on 48th.
Try hard not to look, but if you must, be discreet.
And please, for all our sakes, use a Q-tip ... and don't make us watch.