I often get treated like a sack of crap. For a while, I searched for a more eloquent way to express it, but I kept coming back to the simple and obvious “sack of crap.” That doesn’t really express it accurately, though. Sacks of crap are tossed aside and then left alone. Sometimes, that’s more or less what happens to me, but, often, the situation is much more complex and drama-filled. The good news: drama brings the potential for growth, humor, education, and even transcendence.
It might make sense to say that I’m treated like a cross between a sack of crap and a punching bag. Or even a threesome combining a sack of crap, a punching bag, and the long-suffering weirdest kid in a class filled with bullies. I’m pleased with that last stab at capturing it: it feels… if not totally on target, at least somewhat truthful. That’s all we can ask of a group of words trying to represent a real, nitty-gritty experience in the world. “Somewhat truthful” is a high bar to reach: much higher than most of us realize. If a group of words gets beyond the point of masquerading as the truth, the mind behind them reaches a significant level of success.
A few weeks ago, on the morning of my birthday, a guy at a deli treated me like a true, unmistakable sack of crap, with key elements of punching-bag-ness thrown in. It was my birthday, and I wanted sable (my favorite smoked fish) to mark the occasion. But this birthday implied more years of this life than I want to admit. Now, implication is not the same thing as fact. Fact is in the mind, and I’ve decided that I’m 20 years old. Still, I couldn’t shake certain suggestions that my birth certificate, combined with the current date, might carry. To be safe, I didn’t want this birthday to be an occasion to abuse my body more than necessary. I mean… just in case there was some glimmer of truth to the idea that I wasn’t actually turning 20. What if I’ve reached an age where my body has become slightly more delicate than in the past? I like to keep various truths in my mind at once, maximizing the possibilities of each one… and limiting each one’s dangers as much as possible.
So I wanted sable on a bagel with cream cheese, but I was planning to go out for a special dinner later on, and I didn’t want to consume a whole lot of food before that. I knew exactly what I wanted: a mini bagel (adorable little things that I actually prefer to full-sized bagels because they’re lighter and less doughy) with cream cheese and a few tender, delicious slices of sable. The Livingston, NJ bagel shop in question sells mini bagels, cream cheese, and sable, so I figured this would be no problem at all. But, when you’re me, there’s always a risk of being treated like a sack of crap, or even like the one weird kid in the class. So the outcome here did not totally shock me.
I approached the woman at the counter with happiness and optimism. Somehow, my sack-of-crap tendencies never completely beat me down: I am always very open to the possibility that everything will go well. “I’d like a whole wheat mini bagel with cream cheese and sable.”
“No,” the woman said. Short and pointed. No. Keep in mind that the sable, cream cheese, and mini bagels were all sitting right in front of us, within very easy reach.
“Why not?” I asked, remaining hopeful.
She thought for a minute. She didn’t seem like a bad person at all; I figured she just lacked imagination, or flexibility, or something of the sort. “I mean, I could do that for you, but you’d have to pay for a whole sable platter, with a full-sized bagel.”
I had an immediate reply. I usually do. Come to think of it, maybe that’s part of my problem. “But doesn’t it seem unfair to charge me the full $19 when you’re only giving me about half the food? I know you make other mini bagel sandwiches, including lox sandwiches, and you just charge a little less. If you could just give me like $5 off the regular price, I’d be fine with that.”
“Let me ask,” she said, and soon she brought back a guy who seemed to have some authority. I saw them speaking in low tones, and then he looked at me and said: “No, absolutely not. You can order a sable platter and pay full price. That’s it.” His tone conveyed a kind of hatred. I laughed a little, just to myself. Because, you know what? It was kind of funny. And I’d also concocted a solution, so the situation did not feel grave at all. It was my birthday, and I was super-motivated to find a way to enjoy my beloved sable while not abusing my body or getting cheated.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll just have a mini whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.” After I got that, I went over to the takeout counter and ordered a few slices of sable. And then I took that along with my mini bagel with cream cheese to a table and began eating with my mother (who had been observing this adventure in silence: she is a much less argumentative soul than I am).
The sable was particularly delicious. I savored it slowly, feeling wonderful about my solution to the problem that had faced me. Then I noticed the deli guy from before, standing over me, glaring. It was my birthday breakfast, and I had some deli guy shooting me looks of rage that shot down my pleasure.
“I told you at least 3 times before,” he said.
I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. “Huh?”
“I told you: if you’re going to eat sable in here, you have to get the sable platter.”
I had a moment of shocked silence: in no way was I expecting this. This was not a classic dine-in restaurant with full wait service. You order eat-in food at a counter, and you can also order food for takeout at another nearby counter. It never dawned on me that there were rules about what and where a customer could eat. I was now the rightful owner of my sable slices; couldn’t I consume them wherever I wished?
True, I had been a little bit devious, but I was well within the letter of the law, if perhaps not fully within the spirit of the law. The financial result was more than fair, at least as I saw it. I had paid about $15 total for the mini bagel and a few slices of sable. The platter, which would have offered much more food, was $19. Not much difference at all. Just enough to make me feel that I hadn’t been cheated. And why should I feel cheated on my own birthday? Didn’t I deserve a break from that feeling for just one day? But, you know, maybe this is all part of my problem. Maybe most people just accept that they’re going to feel cheated, and go along with the world’s usual flow.
Regardless, I now had this deli guy ranting and raving, his face way too close to mine as he loomed over me. “You can’t do that. You bought that sable at the to-go counter. You have to eat it at home.” He glowered at my sable slices, then up at me. My tiny bagel was half-eaten at this point. My mother and I sat still, making no signs of standing up to leave. I could feel my mother’s silent loyalty. She is not a fighter, but she always supports my causes.
At last, the deli guy said: “OK, enjoy it now, but you can never do this again. This is the last time.” He’s losing out, because the mini bagel with sable brunch is the perfect treat for me when I’m going out to dinner later…. often the case when I’m visiting my parents in NJ. And my mother and I always hit this deli on our way out for the day; it’s inconvenient to bring the food back home and then head back out again. So we’ll just avoid this place for the most part, because no way in 30 hells are we going to pay for a whole sable platter when that’s not what we’re getting. This world feels hostile and unfair enough without willfully bringing this kind of unfairness on ourselves.
Part 2: A Heating Guy’s Rage
If this were an isolated event, I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it. But it was kind of an average experience for me. I’m thinking now of the heating guy who, just recently, treated me like a cross between a sack of crap and his abused wife… or maybe more like the child who gets hurled across the room when the heating guy is drunk or off his meds. No joke: these were the relationships that occurred to me as I dealt with him. A heating guy. Don’t most people interact with heating guys without sparking this level of unpleasantness?
So here’s what happened: My heater died a few weeks ago, and I called the place my building recommended to check on it, and, most likely, replace it. They sent out two very amiable men to take a look. They determined that the heater was indeed dead, and said they’d email me with options to replace it that afternoon. The afternoon came and went with no email. The next day, during normal business hours, I called the company and got a woman from the answering service. Record low temperatures were coming up, and I asked – very nicely, I swear – if she could contact the company to see about emailing my options so I could order something soon. “They’re very busy: I’m not sure that I can,” she said, in a tone that radiated anger.
“Please, please try. They were supposed to get back to me yesterday. I would love to get this heater before the temperature drops below zero.”
“They’re busy. A storm is coming up,” she said. A storm was indeed coming up. That was part of the reason I was so concerned about my lack of heat. But I figured whoever they were busy with was more important than I was, given my status as a sack of crap.
The next day, I called once again… well within normal business hours. I was still very cordial: I figured that was the only way I’d get anywhere.
“Didn’t you call yesterday? They’ll get back to you when they can! You don’t have to keep pestering us!” The woman was furious. How dare I be concerned about staying in a non-heated apartment in sub-zero temperatures? I guess that reeked of privilege, or obnoxiousness, or some other quality that inspires people to treat others like sacks of crap.
Finally, several days after the company’s initial visit, they got back to me with options for heaters. I chose one and immediately contacted them, but the heater was not going to arrive before the spell of bitter cold. I had a little trip planned to visit my parents for my birthday… but I didn’t want to leave before taking care of the heater. I take my home seriously; I didn’t want to take a chance of pipes freezing or some such in my absence… which can happen in unheated homes during bitter cold periods.
The day I absolutely had to leave for my trip arrived … and still no heater. I contacted the company to explain that I had been suffering in a bitter cold home because of the delay and, on top of it, had cut my visit with my parents short because I was waiting for the heater. I could no longer wait: now, I’d have to leave, and get the heater installed when I returned. The man I dealt with was apologetic, and said he’d try to get me a discount because of all the trouble. He sent me emails calling me “Steph,” which I think was his way of trying to be friendly and appease me, strange as that may sound.
I left for a week and then returned home, and thankfully there was no damage to the pipes. Two young guys from the company arrived the next morning to install the new heater. One of them jovially apologized for not emailing me about my choices for heaters; he said he made a mistake when he wrote down my email the first time, so his message didn’t reach me. I was angry (couldn’t the company have called me back when I said I hadn’t heard from them?), but I didn’t show it; he was a pleasant if clueless dude.
Then I looked at the bill. No discount. I asked about it, and they said I had to speak to David about that; they knew nothing about a discount. David was the guy I’d been dealing with, so that made sense. I called and (very nicely, I swear) reminded David that he had promised to look into a discount for me. Oh boy. Sack of crap, punching bag, and abused female relative rolled into one putrid ball of fire. Don’t ask why, but the situation felt very much male against female. I guess it kind of reminded me of movies that show dudes hanging out in a bar, then coming home and taking whatever rages within them out on their wives, mothers, or daughters.
“Discount? We f*cking busted our asses to come out to you this morning.”
“Isn’t that just basic? The problem is that this happened way later than it should have.”
“Would you like me to come right over there, rip out the new heater, and put the old one back in?”
“No.” And here’s where the joy comes in. That was funny. I mean, seriously, it was. I started enjoying myself here.
“Because of the delay in getting back to me – which your colleague said happened because he got my email wrong – I was without heat for days, in record-breaking cold. And I cut my birthday trip short because I was waiting in the cold, hoping the heater would come in before the last day I could leave for my parents’ house. I explained all of this to you, and you said you’d look into a discount.”
I could hear him breathing heavily into the phone. I was indignant… but wow: this was fascinating. And it was so similar, in a way, to the deli guy. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment and soak in the connections between the two events… which bore similarities to all sorts of verbal abuse I seemed to court from people who tended to be much tamer with others.
Yes, I was angry, but I was also deeply engaged in the social moment. This was rich, and, in its own way, splendid. I decided to take one step back from the situation. Even if I got an enormous discount, I still couldn’t afford to buy a condo in NYC and hang out there every day, lavishing my efforts on writing, my spiritual quest, and helping others with their own quests (a very challenging life indeed, but the one I would choose if I could). The little discount I might or might not receive did not, in the end, mean very much at all; not very much rode on it. But I did deserve one. And this guy had very nicely told me that he’d try to get me one, before he’d worked himself up into whatever state I was lucky enough to be observing. I could be angry and fight but, in a corner of my mind, realize that this didn’t actually matter very much in the ultimate scheme of my life.
“You weren’t even home during the cold spell!” David shouted.
“Oh yes I was. I told you I was. I was here for the very coldest days because I kept hoping the heater would arrive before I left. I didn’t want to leave with no heat here. It was horrible, and it could have been avoided if your company hadn’t waited several days to answer my calls. When we discussed all this before, you were very apologetic and said you’d look into a discount.”
“OK, how about $40 off?”
For some reason, this enraged me. The heater was over $2000; $40 seemed so trivial.
“Listen, I was freezing here. I cut my trip with my parents short. And you know it could have been avoided.”
“So then what do you think would be fair?”
“That is obnoxious. You are obnoxious.”
Finally, he offered me $70 off, and said he wanted to come right over to pick up the check.
“I won’t be home much longer. I have to leave to teach.”
“I don’t have to f*cking know that. I have to f*cking know where you’re going?”
At last, we agreed that I would mail the check to him. I offered to pay with a credit card if he wanted the money sooner, but he wasn’t “f*cking set up” to do it that way.
Part 3: What Can I Learn From This Craziness?
Now, I grew up in a house that needed much more maintenance than my small condo. Fairly often, my parents had people over to fix or work on various issues. Frequently, they’d speak on the phone to set things up and discuss the price. I don’t ever remember anything remotely like this happening to them. Everyone was always cordial and polite to them; there was never any drama. And you know what? Maybe they missed out on some splendid times.
I’m not sure exactly what it is about me that courts this kind of behavior. I am not overtly combative. I spend time with people who have all kinds of challenging requests in restaurants, and somehow, they never seem to arouse the sort of ire I inspired in the deli guy. Their requests often require a lot of effort: draining sauces off of dishes, accommodating complex taste preferences, avoiding basic ingredients like wheat or dairy. My situation would have been much easier to handle than theirs… if only the deli guy had stayed away and let me do my thing.
In the end, I think a lot of it stems from my tendency to do – and seek – exactly what I desire, to the extent possible. I found my way around the sable situation, just like I found my way around all kinds of academic requirements in school… sometimes arousing teachers’ nastiness. The heating dude had mentioned a discount… and I wanted it, even though I could tell he had become unhinged. I wasn’t about to forget it and move on without a little fight.
Through the years, my sack-of-crap status has often upset me. But a shift in perspective might bring peace and even, at times, a kind of pleasure. Of course, I’m happiest when people are nice, pure and simple. But these other situations can be… I think “compelling” is a good word for it. They compel me to think, to feel, to ask questions about why other people are acting in certain ways. They’re challenging emotionally, and even intellectually. I wouldn’t have written a whole essay about easygoing, friendly people at the deli or the heating company… unless they were so kind and giving that they shocked me (may that happen one day: I’d be thrilled!)
In just a few weeks, I will need to see a few people whose treatment of me has often veered in the sack-of-crap direction. The reasons seem related to my tendency to buck expectations and live according to my desires: they dig me about my writing, my teaching, and my unusual interests. I’m dreading it, but can I also look forward to it? Can I see it as an interpersonal adventure: What will they pick on this time? How will they try to make me feel bad? Why are they doing it? Isn’t this fascinating and refreshingly different from hanging out with friends who get and like me?
Isn’t it even just a little bit funny? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. And maybe the answer lies within my own mind and soul.