Wednesday, May 6, 2009


My father's mother was a difficult woman. She was raised on a farm, married a blacksmith, survived The Great Depression, taught her children to read, lost her eldest son in World War Two. She watched as her husband was made old by factory work, watched him die too young. Throughout my childhood, she lived "just up the road." She was a constant presence in my life. I adored her. She was great, good fun; very social, loved to dance, played the piano pedal with a heavy foot, had beaus in her widowhood who were happy to take her out and show her off. She was a pretty lady, always careful of her hair, her dress, her dignity. She was earthy too, though never crude, and she was happiest working in dirt, tending flowers, planting, cooking huge game dinners. But she was a mercurial personality. She could be, and often was, cruel. Easily hurt and ever more easily offended, she stormed through her later life, without her mother or her husband to check her, make her laugh, or settle her when her blood was up. If being older and alone freed her, it also cut her loose. She feuded with people she'd known all her life. She picked fights. She screamed. She was a friend to my mother and the bane of my mother's existence for decades. Manipulative and explosive, she never had an emotion that she didn't turn outward onto whoever was nearest to her; love in abundance, but just as likely anger and outrage. The woman could be damned mean.

My mother has a gentle nature. She's rather shy, easily hurt, but strong as stone. She stood by her mother-in-law, supported and helped her in her old age, my father likewise, buffeted by her her moods, made sick by her demands and the furious confusion that came on at the end. After one particularly vicious and, as always, unwarranted verbal assault, my mother once took my grandmother's hands, her beautiful, thin hands, and held them, held her, refusing to let the woman fly off. When the shouting finally stopped, my mother, quite calmly, her voice tremulous with regret, asked the old woman, "Why do you do this? Why do you have to be this way? We could still have so much fun together. I love you. We could still be great friends. Why do you do this?" My grandmother's agonized response, when it came, was in a uncharacteristically small, low voice, like an exhausted child's, "I do not know. I do not know. I wish I did."

At the bookstore, we are regularly required to help, as best we can, difficult people. Whatever difficulties they generate specific to their purpose in being there, some people seem to bring more with them than could possibly be addressed by a clerk in a bookstore. There are people for whom no help will seemingly ever be sufficient to undo the difficulties in which they find themselves constantly, independent of their daily circumstances, not the result of a lost order, or any disappointments or difficulties with which a stranger might help. There are people, good customers otherwise, some of them, who seem to make every interaction with us, with the world, more complicated than any transaction could possibly be; who wait until we are closed to need books found, despite having been in the store for hours, who insist any laughter overheard must somehow be at their expense, who remain implacable no matter how gently handled. These are not lunatics of whom I speak. Every bookstore has regular lunatics, gently or violently mad people, in out of the rain, dozing over magazines, talking to themselves in the corners, ranting through the lobby. The mad are pitiable. They generally mean no more real harm than they do. So long as they are able to distinguish their surroundings and keep from driving the other customers out, the mad must be made allowance for, in retail, like the weather. But truly difficult people, without the obvious excuse of insanity, without usually any overt indication of their instability until they begin to bully and threaten and shout, such people, met with regularly enough, can defeat the best intentions of the kindest clerk.

Stupidity and ignorance play no more part in the difficulties to which I make reference than does madness, or cunning. My own thick-headed failures to understand often the simplest exchange have made so many messes out of mere muddles, that I would make myself only too ridiculous in allowing simple misunderstanding to be suggested as a true motive for the encounters I mean to describe. Likewise there can be no inference rightly drawn from what I write here of difficult characters that would lead to the conclusion that any real advantage is meant to be taken by these people. Grifters will make scenes, if by that means they have any hope of getting over on a disallowed return or the like, but the people I think of as difficult simply are so for reasons not likely to do them any damned good.

I would like to think, knowing as I do the helplessness that seems to carry these angry souls from one confrontation to the next, hour by hour and day after day, that I am forgiving of such people, but I'm not. At the moment I am being had at, particularly by some elderly person whose agitation is actually making them shake, I should like to be able to say that my own experience with just such a irascible old person is remembered, that my response is moderated not by habit, or the necessities of my employment, but by sympathy, but it isn't. There is a moment in all such encounters, however well I manage to behave myself, and however successfully the issue at hand is resolved, when any pity I might have felt is exhausted, when solicitude shades into a grim determination to simply make the person go away, at whatever expense to myself or the store, to just end what is happening. I am not above handing such people over to people either better paid or better prepared to handle such cases. I am not above granting ridiculous concessions, acceding to entirely unreasonable demands, if by so doing the difficult person can be made to go away, the situation ended, the anger sent elsewhere. I am not proud of the times I've done this, but I always regret the occasions when I haven't, when I can't stop what is happening, when I've ceased to help and only made matters worse.

When that's happened, and it has happened more often than I can admit without shame, I am humiliated, not by what's been said to me, though some truly outrageous things have been said to me over the years, and as recently as yesterday, I am humiliated by my complete failure of compassion, by my own all too quick anger, at the seeming ease with which I can be made to hate some stranger, usually some physically harmless old party who has no other, actual power over me but what he or she has won when I've been made to not care a tinker's damn about what could possibly have produced such a wretched, overwrought, irrational specimen of insufferability.

There's no irony in the knowledge that I've probably been made to feel worse than the difficult person who's succeeded in ruining my day. When I am capable of reflection, it seems obvious to me that feeling anything more than disdain for such behavior is a concession to incivility. But try as I might, I am too short and short tempered to pull off real hauteur. On me, superiority looks no better than petulance. In confrontations, even or particularly in confrontations not of my making, my blood-pressure become dangerously erratic -- shooting up until I glow like a pot forgotten on the stove, and then crashing so precipitously that, if I am not very careful, I shake until I faint. It is deeply humiliating. It is to be avoided at almost any cost.

My model for better behavior, other than that already provided by my parents, must be dear T., my "work wife," who just today resolved a situation involving just such a person as I've been trying to describe. As so often before in the time we have worked together, comparing my response to difficult people with T.'s response to exactly the same circumstances, shows me that it is possible to maintain one's dignity and good manners even in the face of the worst behavior. I do not mean to suggest that T. does not, when required, return anger for anger unjustly dealt. No one I've ever met has a higher sensitivity to injustice, or a quicker temper on behalf at least of others, but what my dear friend and coworker can do with even the most intractable problems and the most intransigent people is a wonder to behold. However furious she may be made by the plain, rude cussedness of an individual, she seems always able to make both her disapproval and her willingness to peacefully resolve the matter know, without raising her voice, indulging in expletives, storming off to have a cigarette or fainting dead away. T. is a wonder.

I am resolved to study her as one might a scripture, when it comes to dealing with difficult people. (I begin to think she must have learned a great deal from living with large dogs. Short of acquiring one though, I will content myself with watching T.)

Meanwhile, I do try. I do remember that the worst behavior can result from the slightest injury, real or imagined, and that while I do not see myself as being difficult, the day may yet come when others will see me so, if they don't as yet. I am resolved at least to try to remember that even someone as difficult as my beloved grandmother may be loved. I'm not saying I will ever be able to love the difficult people who pin me to the counter in the bookstore or send me quivering from the Used Books desk, but I am resolved not to give them the satisfaction hereafter of justifying their hatefulness by hating them. And even if and when I do, if only momentarily or just a little, as I am only too human in every round inch, I am determined, if I must now and then sink rather than rise, to not stick. Would I were as good as T., but failing that, I will try not to be so bad as the worst of 'em.

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