Standing in line at a Vermont health food store between two people. Man and woman. Both buying health food, looking healthy, but not smiling. The woman chatting it up with the hippie cashier, a ramble of gab, a garble of sentences about the weather, the price of coffee, – full force chattering while her goods are bagged. Her teeth are large, so it almost looks like she’s smiling as she talks, but the sides of her face are not moving, and her middle aged lines are not crinkling. Impeccably dressed in L.L. Bean, her winter skin, pale and flaky, she exudes a forced internal energy that seems to infuse her check-out activity with deep meaning. This shopping expedition seems critical to her self image. Her organic goods sacred, she shovels them closer to the cashier with a chilling sobriety.
Behind me, the man, also middle-aged with the steely thin frame of a mountain climber or jockey. Salt and pepper beard, scruffy hair. He is not smiling either, and why should he? He is standing in line waiting. Nobody likes to wait. I turn to him and smile. I am very close to him, my face about three feet from his. His eyes instantly divert, avoiding mine, and he stares past me, earnestly studying nothing, holding several plastic bags of nuts to his breast. I continue to stare and smile. I said “hello” No response. “Hello” again. I waved my hand in front of his face.
He looked at me with confusion, as though he should know my name, and when he did not, he froze, waiting for me to explain myself.
“I’m just saying hello” I said.
“Oh.” He seemed baffled and slightly sad, as though I were playing a trick on him.
It seemed I had broken protocol. I’d been away from Vermont for a couple of months and had stood in several grocery lines in Washington D.C. where I smiled and said hello to just about everyone who was standing behind me and they all smiled and hello back. The people in Washington D.C. could detect the simple twist of my head in their direction. They would automatically acknowledge it with a nod, a blink, a raised eyebrow, the sides of their mouth turning up as the muscles in their face reacted spontaneously to the presence of a fellow human being. (Vermonters, like my Great Aunt Sallie McKnight (1876-1920) seem more comfortable with a downward turn of the mouth .
This natural impulse, acknowledgement, has little meaning until it is not forthcoming. The man forced a grin and tried to save face. “Oh, of course, hello”
“Hello” I repeated, louder.
“Well, yes, hello!” he chucked.
Strange. A woman in a grocery store, standing in front of him at the check-out smiling at him and saying hello for no good reason. What could she want?
His forced smile was fleeting, his voice terse, and a shadow of panic crossed his face. His eyes widened, his pupils dilated as he prepared himself for a shopping line conversation. But what could he say? He couldn’t think of a thing.
“Why doesn’t anybody say hello in Vermont?” I asked.
“I mean” and I turned to the woman in front of me, “I mean, why don’t people in Vermont say hello or smile at each other?”
“We certainly do say hello and smile” she said, not smiling.
“You didn’t smile at ME” I said.
“I didn’t see you.” That may have been true and I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m busy bagging my groceries here” she said.
I had overstepped, offending the cashier, the man and the woman, with an unthinkable premise: People in Vermont were not as friendly as they were supposed to be. Especially in a health food store, where those bonded by the common cause of a greener planet sought out like minds. A tribe of vegetarian cannibals, united gastronomically, their innards churning up the same organic roughage.
I couldn’t back down.
“I’ve been in Washington D.C. for two months, and everybody smiles at everybody else in the grocery lines. They smile and then they say hello.”
The cashier, not smiling, said “Well, everybody says hello and smiles at me”
“That’s because you’re the cashier” I answered.
“Well, hello, then” hissed the woman, a hard smile stretching over her big teeth, her eyeballs trembling like black, boiling peas. “And, good-bye.”
“Hello, hello hello.” Sing-songed the hippie cashier, throttling my grocery items as she rang them up, heaving them violently toward the stack of paper bags.
I turned, once again, to the man behind me. He wasn’t smiling.