I forgot headphones. That was my first mistake. Headphones have been the universal sign of “Buzz off, I’m not participating in your reality” since 1980. My failure to encase my ears and blast media noise into them left me vulnerable.
I arrived at the coin-operated laundry Sunday for the unpleasant chore of cleaning my meager wardrobe. I shoved the contents of my tub into a machine, loaded in the coins and took a seat at an empty table. I set the timer on my phone. I pulled out my book, a crime noir thriller by Donald Westlake. I hunched over, peeled back the cover and dug in for 23 minutes of short, crisp sentences that said a whole lot in very few words.
Obviously, I looked like a man who wanted to chat.
The laundry attendant sauntered over.
Her: Where’s Gabby from?
Her: You know, Gabby the gymnast.
She meant Gabrielle Douglas, the U.S. Olympic gold medal winner. I don’t know what about me, a fat guy in blue sweat pants and sweaty T-shirt, made her think I would know anything about a gymnast. It happens that I had this bit of trivia. I answered. This was probably a mistake.
Her: I was thinking Chicago. Or maybe …
I broke off eye contact as she want back behind the desk. Her voice trailed off. Parker, the anti-hero of my book, punched a guy in the throat and killed him. I swear I did not smile.
A few minutes later, the same lady bustles by again.
Her: You look like something’s bothering you today.
Me: Um, no.
Well, there wasn’t. Now I’m annoyed. I know she’s just trying to be friendly. I’m not trying to be unfriendly. I’m trying to read and keep to myself. When did that become “something is bothering me?”
Come to think of it, what kind of statement is “You look like something is bothering you.” What good could possibly come from saying that to someone? If they are bothered by something, chances are you, a stranger, are not going to be the person they dish to. If they aren’t bothered by something, they will be now.
I went back to my book. Parker and a gang of 12 planned to rob a mining town in North Dakota. I bet they know how to leave a guy alone in North Dakota.
I switch my clothes to the dryer. I rest the timer on my phone. I go back to my seat. Again, the lady chats me up.
Her: You know anything about phones?
Me: I have a phone.
Her: Are you good with phones?
Me: I can make calls.
Her (showing me her phone): I can’t find my favorites on here. They used to be on the home screen, but they’re not there anymore.
Me: Is that a Droid?
Me: I’ve never used that kind of phone. I’m sorry.
Her: So do you think I should just take it into Verizon?
Me: It’s a thought.
Her: You know, this is a brand new phone.
Her: I dropped my phone in the parking lot the other day. An old lady who could barely see over her steering wheel ran over it. She stopped and got out and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We need to get you a new phone.” Well, I’m not going to argue with the old lady. So we went to the Verizon store and this is what I got, but I don’t know how to work it.”
Me: That’s nice.
My timer went off. I broke away from the phone chatter and began folding. I found myself tense and irritated. Can’t I just read my book? Can’t I just sip my soda and stay quiet?
Just because a person is in public doesn’t mean they want to chat. Some might say that makes me dour and antisocial. Maybe.
But whatever happened to minding your own business?
Anyway, next time I remember the headphones.