In the past, I’ve had some anger issues. Or as my close friends liked to call them, ‘sudden explosions of psychotic rage.’ Almost anything could set me off instantly, but I saved special fits of fury for people who were incompetent, arrogant or blatantly stupid. Often, a little misunderstanding could quickly get out of hand and become a heated and dangerous confrontation. Always, it was an unpleasant and ugly scene. Afterwards, I’d be left with a throat raw from screaming, tension knots down my spine, a throbbing headache and little memory of what had happened. And while I’d never struck anyone, I had begun to realize that these ‘rage blackouts’ could easily lead to a physical violence that might result in somebody getting badly hurt or killed. Probably me. Either way, I was concerned. And like any self-destructive behavior, I knew it had to be fixed.
I’d cold-quit a 20 year smoking habit a few years ago with surprising ease and one key realization: You’ve got to be strong enough to want to change your behavior. I now hoped that the same strength could be the key to kicking my rage jones. Leaving a long-term job I’d grown to hate helped a bit. Getting older and wiser helped a lot. The acknowledgement that I had a problem helped the most. When a potentially volatile situation arose, I’d consciously transfer my focus to taking deep breaths and remaining calm. At the risk of sounding trite — or like Patrick Swayze in ROADHOUSE — you simply have to learn to be nice. Sometimes it’s a struggle and I have the occasional rage relapse. But much like any other recovery situation, you take it one day at a time.
Sundays, for example, will rarely rattle my cage. It’s usually a laid-back day for nesting with the papers, doing laundry and at most, shopping for groceries. And as my neighborhood continues to gentrify, the supermarket on my corner – which used to be a dirty hellhole staffed by morons – has tried their best to change with it. But for all the addition of ‘upscale’ products and new signage, the remodeling has helped little. The aisles remain redolent of roach spray and dead mice. The staff stays idiots. The place still sucks. Inexplicably, I still shop there. I think it may have something to do with enjoying the weekly temptation.
I’d dealt with the guy at their ‘new’ deli counter before, an elderly Asian man who always moved as if he was underwater. He’d first have to look for a knife to cut away the plastic on the meat or cheese, which he’d then approach as if he were doing delicate surgery. It could be five minutes before he even got near the slicing machine, which he’d slowly slide back and forth like it was made of fragile glass. By the time he’d get from the slicer to the scale, the small pile of meat or cheese would be well under the weight the customer wanted and the whole process would start all over again. He was a challenge to anyone’s patience, and one that I’d gradually learned to accept. The woman standing behind me obviously had not.
She was wearing sweatpants and an expensive red parka, hair tucked up under a baseball cap from some lodge in Aspen and her breath sputtering out in a series of exaggerated, exasperated sighs. From a cursory glance, I guessed that she more than likely lived in the new “luxury rental” building that had recently opened half a block away. Hey, if I were stupid enough to pay $4,000 a month for a studio apartment in what realtors are now calling ‘The Upper Upper West Side,’ I’d be pretty pissed off too.
The old guy finally finished with his customer and I took a step towards the meat case. But before I could get “Half a pound of roast beef” half out of my mouth, the woman behind me shoved forward and spoke directly to the deli clerk. “I was here first,” she snapped. “And I want a pound of baby Swiss. And you should learn some fucking manners.”
That last part was directed at me. She had to be fucking kidding.
I instantly felt the blood in my skull headed for low boil. Many a retort quickly formulated in my mouth, most of them containing the phrase “You CUNT.” But I wasn’t going to lose my temper this time. I could deal with the situation without confrontation. I was going to stay calm.
I gripped the handles of my basket and took a deep breath. “You,” I said evenly, “have got to be fucking kidding.”
When she snapped her head to me, I got a good look. Late-30s, no make-up, a tendril of unwashed hair dangling from under her cap, a painful-looking pimple growing on the side of her mouth and a sour sneer like she had bad gas. No way was she having a good day. “No, I am NOTFUCKINGKIDDING,” she spat. “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘Ladies First,’ asshole?”
This was clear escalation. My brain now throbbed angrily. I was getting those familiar white popping dots around my peripheral vision. This had the potential to be the first bad one in a long time, and it was going to be a bad one in public. I clenched and unclenched my hands around the wire basket handle and took a series of deep, steady breaths. I had to fight down the feeling quickly. Because ‘what I was gonna do about it’ needed to be – had to be – absolutely nothing. I slammed my eyes shut, kept my tongue still and focused only on nice thoughts.
By the time I opened my eyes, the woman had gotten her cheese and was storming up the aisle, shopping cart careening wildly. An old Hispanic woman who had been on line behind us touched me on the arm. “You did good,” she said gently. I smiled weakly, got my cold cuts and headed for the checkout.
I felt drained as I waited in the short register line and watched the manager – a short and perpetually pissed-off fella – berate a cashier at the front desk. The week before, I’d seen him in the final stages of tossing out a female crackhead shoplifter. As he waved a Polaroid photo he’d taken of her and explained “the next time we call the police,” she nodded numbly and held a hand to her reddening, swelling face. It was probable that she’d just been smacked around in the backroom by the manager, possibly with the help of the burly delivery guys who stood around snickering. In this neighborhood, I gathered that was the best way of dealing with the situation.
I’d finished paying and was walking to the exit when the idea came so clearly that I had to smile. Just as quickly, I turned the smile into a look of concern and stepped to the counter. “You the manager?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied flatly and waved away the cashier.
“Well,” I continued, “there’s a lady back there in the store. Blonde hair, red parka, baseball cap. I saw her stick two packages of hot dogs in her bag.”
“Yeah?” he said, his interest now definitely piqued, his eyes quickly scanning the checkout area.
“She’s still shopping,” I continued. “But she’s acting all crazy and aggressive and shit. You might want to be real careful.”
He was already coming out from behind the counter. “Blonde hair, red parka, baseball cap?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just be careful, man. There’s something real wrong with her.”
“Thanks,” he said. His eyes were glowering as he yelled to two burly delivery guys who had been smoking just outside the exit doors. As they rushed inside he was already in motion, pushing his way up through a checkout line and towards the aisles. I got the feeling that he had some major anger issues, too.
I don’t know what happened when he confronted the woman, but there’s a pretty good chance that she became belligerent when he demanded to search her bag. Maybe the situation quickly became hostile when she resisted or had something to say about his manners. And perhaps the manager and his boys had to take her into the back room for a while. Life is full of little misunderstandings that can quickly get out of hand.
But like I said, I don’t know what happened. By that time I was already home, happily fixing myself a nice roast beef sandwich.