My best ideas often come when I’m supposed to be doing something else.  This morning I was presentable and out of the house early: I drove into town and did a few errands, then settled in upstairs at the divine Atwater’s, where I can breathe in gingersnap steam and stare out at the bleak December sky.

And, supposedly, grade exams.  But instead I’m thinking about people.

Because I’m helpless / hopeless to improve the kitchen situation (and, in fact, the more hours I spend at home greatly increases the probability of a huge fight with my husband — two spouses, three opinions) I did the only thing I could think that might be useful later: gathered samples for a new wall covering that will complement the finishes we’ve chosen.

The cabinets and counter are neutral — sand, beige, warm beech — so I was thinking green for the slivers of exposed wall that run around them: a large, leafy pattern with maybe a few flecks of red to compliment the bevy of red appliances we already own. But once I was walking the floor of the funny old wallpaper store in downtown Catonsville, I settled on half a dozen patterns that were nothing like that: wide stripes, Provencal olives, and a Far East-influenced paisley in rust and blue that’s secretly my favorite.  (I’m a sucker for blue anything.)  I was really starting to enjoy myself, considering the possibility of a border paired with solid paint, relishing the first step of a design process in which nothing is certain and everything is on the table.

Then I remembered, abruptly, what jerks the store employees are.

I say this, honestly, with love.  My grandfather had a soft spot for surly waitresses, and I am frankly tickled by the way these acerbic ladies treat their customers with such disdain.  I overheard a conversation today  in which a novice customer questioned a price, and the door had hardly closed behind her before they whooped it up at her expense.  “Can you imagine?!  She didn’t know that a double roll meant double the price!”

Years ago they worked on commission, and every single sample had to be signed and numbered by a specific, pushy saleswoman.  The woman who helped me today didn’t do that, but I did get a stony glare each time I brought her a roll to request a sample (God forbid I tear it myself!)  Then she told me to put the rolls back while she read the paper. When I asked for help reaching a high shelf, citing the sign on the ladder to ask for assistance, she rolled her eyes and said, “I guess you can get it yourself.”  

I was, again, too amused to be offended, especially at the end when she asked me, “What are you doing with all these, anyway?!”  I said that I was choosing a pattern for my kitchen, and she eyed the samples, gave me the world’s most condescending grimace of a smile, and responded, “Oooookay.”  I explained that my husband, a designer, liked to have a variety of choices.  “Well, you should have brought him with you,” she snapped.  I politely responded that he was busy installing the cabinets, thanked her for her time, and left.

What makes people like this?  Does she hate her job?  Does she resent giving out free samples, even if it results in subsequent business?  Does she not see what a miracle it is that a dumpy, drafty old-lady shop is still afloat in these economically troubled times?

And, further: what would make her happy?  Would she be genuinely grateful for a customer who dropped hundreds of dollars on the first thing he saw, without requesting a single sample — or would he receive the same contempt for disturbing the silence behind the counter? What about at the end of the day — does she relax a little during dinner with friends, or is she just as scornful when the waitress is late with her martini?

There are many stunning scenes in the movie Crash, but one of my favorites comes toward the end when the gangster-turned-noble shakes his head and laughs, “People, man.  People.”  It’s all the more fitting that this remark precipitates a misunderstanding that leads to his tragic and undeserved end.  Our inner workings are, and always will be, a mystery.  The group of loudly-cackling women who has commandeered the upper floor of the coffee shop, punctuating each five-minute interval with a deafening burst of laughter; the college boy who, glued to his Kindle, passes an hour in blissful ignorance of his surroundings; the mom who presents three toddlers with full glasses of milk and then is shocked and exasperated when one of them spills.

And the girl in the corner, who came here to work but has done nothing but sip coffee and blog since she came in.  She’s a mystery too.  But she’d better get cracking on those exams now.