I was raised in an old-fashioned English household with my Yorkshire grandparents. There I was taught that good manners are the mark of civilized people. To my grandparents, good manners meant saying “please” and “thank you,” holding doors open for ladies, waiting your turn, and not interrupting people – especially my grandfather – when they were speaking. It also meant avoiding “bad language.”

As I grew older, my perception of what constituted good manners expanded to include walking on the outside of the sidewalk when escorting a lady, driving courteously, pulling the chair out for (not from under) my date, and providing for other people’s comfort before my own. In fact that last phrase echoes a definition of good manners I heard just the other day: “Good manners means making other people feel comfortable.” In light of all this, I reflected on some of my trips to market.

 

A Journey to the Market

Today, a single trip to the supermarket can leave you feeling jangled, unnerved, edgy, out of sorts and generally uncomfortable. Why so?

Let’s begin with the drive to the supermarket. You may find yourself sitting at a stoplight next to a low rider with the windows down and a boom box on full volume. Whatever you might have been listening to on your own radio is blown out of your consciousness as your sternum vibrates to the point of distributing your ribs all over the inside of your car. As the light turns green, the noise box on wheels hits the gas and screeches up the street in a trail of blue smoke to irritate someone else. About that time, someone driving an old Camaro runs the red light and just about decapitates the fiberglass panel on the front of your car. (That’s the place where they used to mount steel bumpers.)

As you arrive, shaken, at the parking lot of your favorite supermarket, someone in a Volkswagen whips into the parking space you had targeted. You pick another one, a little farther from the store. As you try to wedge into it, you realize that the car next to you has its wheels on the line. If you park in the middle of your space, you’re not going to be able to open the door on the driver’s side. So you pull out and try for another space. The next one you see is full of shopping carts. The one after that has someone parked cattywompus taking up two spaces. Finally you find an available space about a football field away from your store.

As you trudge the distance to the store, a panhandler suddenly appears in your face and hits you up for “anything you can spare.” He explains that he’s only been here a week from Texas and he hasn’t gotten his first paycheck yet. Standing near their fat, panhandling father are a fat woman and her fat son. All are wearing tragic looks on their faces. You reach into your wallet and hand him some singles. He doesn’t thank you. The little group then wheels around to approach some other people who have just arrived to do some shopping. You are torn with conflicted feelings. Did you get ripped off? Was it irresponsible of you to give him money when you have so little of your own? Was this person a professional panhandler, or truly destitute? If the latter were you too chintzy with him? Did you help him as much as you could have? Will God eventually “get you” for being mean spirited?

By the time you get into the store, you are conflicted, irritated and out of sorts. You pick a cart, only to find it has a square wheel. You turn around and take it back and select another one. As you put your hands on it to push it around, you find that someone with sticky hands has handled the cart before you. Wadded up in the bottom of cart are some soiled tissues and a half-empty carton of some food from the free sample table. Who knows what exotic disease you may have contracted from this gummy encounter?

 

The Isles of Obstruction

After some scrutiny you finally select a satisfactory shopping cart and begin your journey into the isles – only to find that a large, big-chinned lady wearing black tights while talking loudly on a cell phone and paying no attention to you is blocking your isle. You stand there, patiently, hoping she’ll notice you and give you clearance. She doesn’t. So you say, “Excuse me.” She ignores you. You turn the cart around, go all the way around to and up another isle and back into the one you were in to reach the item you want — which is just to the north of the fat lady on the cell phone. She’s still there, firmly planted like the Colossus of Rhodes, but the item you want is buried behind her substantial anatomy. “Excuse me,” you say again. She turns, glares at you, and returns to her phone. She’s not about to budge. You make a mental note of where your item is, and head out of that isle to find some other things on your list.

Midway down the next isle, you encounter a young mother with a cart full of pre-schoolers and groceries. There’s Boffer the Cougher, Geezer the Sneezer, and a small baby with a full diaper and a contented look on its face. Boffer and Geezer are both forming large green bubbles under their noses and the baby is about to poke at one of them. The isle floor is littered with items the kids have pulled off the shelves on their trip through the store. The mother, naturally, is oblivious.

You pass gingerly by the cart of germs in hopes of finding some organic coffee. You locate your beans and as you approach the in-store coffee grinder, you discover that someone else has been there before you. The grinder is still full of coffee beans, and the table, the overflow bin and the floor are full of ground coffee. If you turn the grinder on, the beans in the hopper will grind and create another small hill on the floor in front of the grinder. If you walk away from the mess, someone will assume that you made it. So you wait, trying to figure out what to do. A small line begins to form behind you. Others want to grind their coffee. Finally, in exasperation, you walk away returning the unground coffee cans to your cart, and exposing the mounds of coffee your body was hiding. The line disperses. No matter which isle you enter, you find people giving you looks.

After what seems an eternity, you head for the checkout stand. The lines are long and the customers are testy. Several people leave their carts in the line and go back to retrieve some item they’ve forgotten. After an assortment of price checks, food stamp signings, coupon countings, and rejected credit cards, it’s your turn to check out. The clerk, it turns out, has a bad cold. While she’s making change for you, someone comes up to her with a broken product, and demands a replacement for half price. The clerk, addled, forgets how much your change is supposed to be. Finally she gets her act together and starts the count again. Just before she hands you your last bill, she sneezes on it. No point in asking for another – she’s handling all of them.

“By the way,” you tell her, “Someone left a mess at the coffee grinder in isle three.” She gives you a look, her eyes crinkle in a slight knowing smile, and she says, “I’ll get someone to clean it up.” On your way out to the parking lot, you turn and look back at the store. Through the window, you notice that one of the customers who’d been giving you looks is talking to the check out lady and pointing at you…

Several days later, as you lie in your bed, fighting off a fever, runny nose and nagging cough, you wonder why it is that you’re getting so many more colds these days. At one time, it was never more than one a year. Now it’s several. Is it possible that bad manners may not only make you feel uncomfortable, but also make you sick?