Monday, November 02, 2009

The Last Customer's Bag

When a spell of rapid heartbeat commences, experience has taught me to go into a controlled deep breathing mode, to try to quell it as early as possible. Long, slow, deep-breathing, with my stomach muscles held taut, can usually allay the blood-rush demon.

Most of the time that technique works and the spell lasts less than a minute. When it doesn’t work the episode can drag on for 10, 20 minutes, or longer. With my chest pounding and my anxiety roiling it can be rather distracting. Work is nearly impossible.

Sometimes, waiting it out is all I can do. Going outside and moving around usually around helps. Rarely do the spells begin outdoors.

This problem began about the time I was turning 30. In those days my marriage was slowly but steadily coming unglued, and I was chain-smoking Kools. I was leading a life of extremes -- long hours at work and play. I kicked the Kools 30 years ago. Since then I have gone whole years at a time without such a spell, but when I’m living with some extra stress they return.

When the demon releases me, and just as suddenly as the exaggerated thumping in my chest had started it stops, I usually laugh. Hey, a laugh is just a big smile.

Unfortunately, my work has me sitting down, indoors and probably breathing shallowly for too much of many days. One of my theories is that shallow breathing can trigger a spell. So, it’s usually a pleasure to take a break from the keyboard or drawing board to walk for a short errand.

Walks and bike rides frequently improve my disposition. Pumping fresh air though my body feels good.

Several years ago on one of my walking excursions, it was in mid-autumn, an oddball incident provided comic relief for an uncomfortable moment that needed it. As it unfolded, it felt like a scene in a movie. Perhaps that was suggested to me by the fact its setting was a video store -- I was looking over the rack of current releases. Or, maybe I’ve always thought I was living in a movie.

Reading the film notes on the box for Scorsese’s latest blood bath, I sensed movement behind me. As I had been the only customer in the room, idle curiosity turned me toward the counter. On the other side of a wall-of-videos display rack, I caught sight of a man I hadn't seen in years. Having just come into the store, he purposely handed a plastic bag to one of the two female sales clerks behind the counter.

My being obscured by the rack of video boxes was a blessing, as I had good reasons for preferring to avoid interaction with this character.

So, I returned my attention to the movie selections in front of me. When I heard the bells ringing than meant the front door had opened, I glanced up in time to see the aforementioned customer leaving the store.

As she dumped out the contents of the last customer’s bag, one of the two young women standing behind the counter burst out laughing in the manner of a likable-but-bad actress playing a scene. With overstated comic gestures she feigned being troubled by the mystery of what might tumble out.

“What’s tha-at?” said the other girl, throwing up her hands to join the moment’s improvisation.

They had my full attention. My curiosity was aroused. So, I stepped closer, to see what I could see.

Black VHS video tape cassettes were all that came out of the bag. Yet the two young women were going to a lot of bother to avoid touching what appeared to be ordinary stock of that very store.

A spray bottle of Windex was produced; they invited me into their conspiracy with the sparkle of eye contact. Both then busied themselves spraying and wiping off the tapes. It was reminiscent of conspiratorial children removing cooties from objects touched by a someone they don’t like.

Assuming there had to be something peculiar about the movies -- like maybe they were kinky flicks, or peculiar in some way -- I stepped even closer to see what the titles were. Without looking so hard that it would indicate anything more than a casual interest, I noticed a couple of titles.

Both were mainstream films; one a crisp black comedy I had recently seen and liked. And, yes, I was somewhat disappointed the guy had the least bit of good taste in selecting his video rentals. Playing along with their tongue-in-cheek tone I offered a line, “Do you have to wipe down all the tapes when they are returned?”

“Oh, no,” they chirped. They assured me this procedure was special for the customer who had just left the building. They shuddered, having no reason to know it delighted me to see their reaction to that same character.

Then, it dawned on me the two of them were just doing what bored service workers everywhere in the world do, to kill time. To amuse themselves they were mocking a bad-vibes person, a customer they saw as deserving of ridicule. Unknowingly, they had validated my prejudice against him and, in the doing, they had cheered me up quite a bit.

Being let in on their harmless goofing around reminded me that the spontaneous sharing of unanticipated, totally unscripted moments of levity is truly one of life’s treasures. Shared laughs that come out of the blue can cut right through bad moods.

My stride for the walk home through the Fan District had an optimistic bounce. Along the way I recalled that the excursion itself had been brought on by one of those rapid heartbeat spells, which I had left at the video store. I laughed out loud a few times, just replaying the spray bottle scene on the moviola in my head.

Fresh air, taken in with gusto, always helps. Maybe the air smells best in Virginia in the fall.

Laughing is a special way of breathing. The best. A good belly laugh can even chase the hounds of doubt away from nipping at my heels and back to wherever such creatures belong.

-- 30 --

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