By societal standards, I’m a nosy busybody.
Any conversation within earshot becomes fair eavesdropping game. Whispers exchanged between two bored guys at “Swan Lake” offer fresh, unused classical dance-review phrases. Gen Z’ers utilizing whole sentences of jargon I’ve never heard sends me online to the Urban Dictionary, opening an untapped learning experience. Almost out-of-hearing-range comments at a networking event can result in business leads.
The proof of nosiness as a virtue goes on, but what I see as a study in human nature is usually considered a breach of boundaries by others.
From the earliest age, my mother, The Betty (may she rest in peace), called me “Miss Need-to-Know.” Something as innocent as putting my ear against the door while my grandparents (may they rest in peace, too) argued in Yiddish resulted in losing after-dinner playtime. The Betty never knew those strange old words were like a childhood Urban Dictionary, and gave me a lifetime of vocabulary to fall back on.
Even now, when overplayed English slurs fail me, I instantly go to “alte makhsheyfe” (old witch) or “amoretz” (idiot or numbskull). Then, of course, there’s “farbissina,” which is a favorite, top-shelf word reserved for seriously mean, stubborn people. Not only is “farbissina” an adjective applicable to many situations, but it’s also fun to say. (What The Betty did know about those days was losing playtime and being told to read a book instead was a bonus that almost offset the sting of her displeasure.)
No longer a child, I’ve become stealthy at pretending I’m not violating someone else’s space so I can hear what they’re talking about. If the conversation is boring or of no use, I turn to my own thoughts. When I’m in line at the grocery store, I’ll turn to a magazine headline telling me Princess Diana was Elvis’ love child. Sadly, the only thing I’ve learned from sensationalized headlines is that there are many people out there with more outlandish imaginations than my own.
The conversation I happened upon at the grocery on Sunday was not boring but it was outlandish. The store was full of pre-Patriots game last-minute shoppers and those of us who put it off until we were out of coffee and dog food. Not a fun adventure, many shelves were empty, prices seemed higher, and too many small, unhappy children needed to be put down for naps.
Before COVID-19, I had always enjoyed grocery shopping, but like many things, that thrill was gone. My mask was itchy and heightened pandemic hospitalization reports had me on edge. Maybe that’s why the two women in front of me in the checkout line had me so outraged.
They were both wearing Tampa Bay Buccaneers TB12 jerseys (Brady’s move outraged me too) and were obviously in the pre-gamer category. I was more impatient than the tired toddlers, so it didn’t help that the young cashier had an “In Training” sign propped up in plain view.
“OMG,” said the one with the beer and chips. “Every time I shop here these days they are so short-handed and slow and now this. Can’t they pick a better time to train new people or at least hire people who can move a little faster?”
“It is terrible,” answered the other one with what appeared to be hot dogs and a bunch of stuff from the deli case. “It really is unbelievable to have lines so long and be training right now. The trainer should ring stuff in and that new kid should bag everything.”
They went on and on berating the trainee, the trainer, and the store overall. They weren’t wearing masks, so I could hear them clearly and saw from his flushed face and flustered mannerisms that the trainee could hear them too.
But it wasn’t until Beer and Chips went to pay that I was unable to contain myself. She handed him a stack of bottle-return refund slips, a few manufacturers coupons, and wanted to pay half in cash and half with a personal check. By this time, the line behind me had grown deep and I thought the kid was going to burst into tears.
“Maybe you two could be a little nicer and things would move more quickly,” I said, seemingly out of nowhere (even to myself). Then, with a tad of sarcasm, “You knew he was training and every place around is short-staffed. It has to do with masks and you know, the pandemic and everything.”
Startled, the cashier looked up and the two women turned around. It was quiet for a nano-second until the man behind me started clapping his hands.
“Really, he’s in training and you want to write a damn check and complain about how long things are taking?” the man asked, looking directly at Beer and Chips. “Lady, you’re what’s wrong with the F-ing world today.”
Smiling at him with my eyes, there was a shared moment of, “I can’t believe I butted into someone else’s business at the grocery store.”
“OMG. It’s rude and impolite to listen in and comment on private conversations,” spewed Hot Dogs and Deli. “The people shopping here are as bad as the store.”
Then whispering so even I couldn’t hear them, the two left as quickly as the cashier could get them out of there, which was longer than anyone would have liked.
Once outside, I was equally ashamed and delighted that I listened in and then spoke up for the underdog. My nosy curiosity killed me for sure, but knowing I did a spontaneous mitzvah brought me back.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].