It's patellar reflex, impossible for me to resist–I have to say "God bless you" when somebody sneezes.
And so it went the morning I met the crazy lady at Panera.
It wasn't that I was asking God to bless the crazy lady; I didn't even know she was crazy yet. It was much more a common courtesy, a social grace, my manners triggered in knee jerk.
My plan was to meet a friend (who would eventually show up 45 minutes late) but I had gotten there early to write. I hadn't even noticed her sitting to my left until she sneezed, right about the time CC should have arrived.
"Godblesshew," I offered without looking up, my subconscious more aware than my conscious as transcribed thoughts appeared on my screen.
"I can't wait to move at the end of April," she began, mistaking my "blessing" as conversation opener. It wasn't.
I smiled, nodded and my attention returned to my laptop as she continued to explain…attempted to return. "My daughter's closet literally backs up to mine, you could cut a hole in either to connect our apartments." Southern and too polite to ignore her, I became hostage to her will and way, a fast-talking deck of personal, uninvited and obscure thought dealt like a pro, barely allowing enough room for oxygen, let alone a response.
Conspiracy theory threaded her pearls–Obama was the anti-christ (we don't really know where he was born…) and he and Hitler had more in common than not (you can find it on You Tube); identity theft is rampant (cross-cut shred your mail, divide it, put pieces in separate, heavy trash bags filled with water and let it sit…for months); our government supports a culture of death, allowing murder of children up to two years old for no reason. She had four cats; four indoor cats in a 500-square-foot apartment. I also learned about her health issues, everything from allergies to irritable bowel and what would happen if she ordered that caramel latte I was eyeing.
It wasn't pretty but it saved me money and calories.
As she hopped one bizarre, convoluted trail after another, I watched her. Short-cropped gray hair covered in a multi-colored hand-knit beanie; skin, grooves deep and many from years chained to smoke; a bag seemingly full of everything; a book on the table, opened but turned over, its title begging my curiosity.
"Are you okay? You seem worried…" it was the first time in 30 minutes she tried to engage me. I hadn't heard what she last said but I'm sure my face indicated concern; as much as she had told me, in spite of the venom and vinegar dripping from her lips, I wondered about her. Her story. Her life. Her sickness. Her pain.
What in her world would allow her permission to not only think so many of the things she shared, but to believe it was okay to impose them on a stranger?
"Oh, no, not worried," I assured her. "Just processing everything you've been talking about…." She smiled, satisfied.
She gathered her things, we said our goodbyes and I wished her well with her future move.
I sat there shaking my head, trying to account for all the things she had shared in the course of 45 minutes.
It occurred to me the crazy lady wasn't much different than the rest of us….
She just needed someone to listen.