Sometimes I go people watching. Like most people, I usually do it to pass the time and imagine backstories for the faces I see. But I can’t help wondering, with each person that passes, how they decided to embark on any of the billions of choices they could make on that day.
Take this guy walking into the restaurant I’m eating at this morning. He’s wearing baggy jeans and a grey sweatshirt with a light windbreaker. Out of the dozens of outfits he could have picked from his closet, he chose this. Why? Well, it’s -25 with windchill in Ann Arbor, so one might think him insane, but he’s probably just a hardy local. Anyway, the point is this: the first choice he made that day had (I’m spitballing here) a few hundred possibilities in what he could mix and match.
After he got dressed, he decided to go to this Jimmy Johns, instead of the Subway down the block. When he perused the menu, he went with #9, the Big Italian, a popular choice, but one of twenty listed on the menu. He swapped the doughy white bread for sliced wheat, axed the tomato, and added sweet peppers and (god help him) mayo to his creation. He eyed the potato chip rack. The BBQ looked good, so he picked it up and tossed it to the cashier. “Cut it in half too, will ya,” he said after paying in cash.
He took a seat two booths down from me. The place is empty, but he chose this one out of the eight in the shop. Not favoring the aisle, he sat next to the window. He took out his phone and scrolled. Instagram? Flipboard? Twitter? ESPN? God, this is where my people-watching-anxiety really spikes. Not even possible to compute the branching possibilities within this guy’s smartphone.
Now, I’m not kidding when I say this gives me anxiety. I simply don’t understand how some people make the choices they do in our atomized, modern world.
Sometimes, when I’m at the grocery store, I think of the old breadlines from documentaries about the Soviet Union and get a little envious. Walk in, talk to Masha, get a red slip from Nikolai, walk to the baker’s isle, stand in line, grab another red slip from Dimitri; he tells me rye or wheat, I tell him rye.
Simple. (Yes, Yes, famines and shortages, but when it worked, simple).
But now I’m in Meijer, walking down the bread aisle, darting my eyes at the sheer ridiculousness of the possibilities that lay before me. I could still go with Rye, but which one? A dozen options. Each with poppy packaging and claims of minimal high fructose corn syrup. I scoot my cart past. I’ll come back later.
At the checkout line, I reach into my cart and dump my choices on the conveyer belt. A bit calmer now. What’s done is done. No changing my selection now. I eye the old lady in front of me. Wooden cane, dolphin figurine on top. Paying with credit. Cart: fifteen cabbage heads, cherries, chicken breasts, and NOW mints.
What in gods name is she going to do with that? Some sort of cult ritual? I can’t understand her. She looks at me and smiles. I flash one back. Inside, I’m freaking out. I have to understand her. Where is she going? What is she cooking? Why is she at this Meijer?
Why is my mind so damn hyperactive?