I was dressed for my usual invisibility: a pale pink, long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans, and brown sneakers that suggest, falsely, a hiker mentality. I'm headed to Meijer, and I'm certain that nobody's even going to see me.
It's the end of a hot and humid day, and tomorrow's supposed to be worse. I get in my car, turn the AC off, and open my window to the balmy night air and the sound of katydids. I'm nostalgic, thinking about summer nights long ago, driving home from the beach with my soon-to-be husband, wearing probably less than a pound of clothing between the two of us, our arms and legs bare to the breeze, feeling impossibly young and alive and, while enjoying the moment, taking it for granted at the same time.
Late on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, there aren't many shoppers at Meijer. I put dishwasher detergent tabs and rice into my cart. At the intersection of the rice/boxed noodles/soup/tuna aisle and the main aisle, I nod to a woman in black. She's veiled, only her eyes showing, and rides a motorized cart. She nods back, the rhinestones on her headscarf glimmering. She is accompanied by a tall, imposing man, clad in long black robes. He smiles and nods too.
So, I guess this is what I do, on a Saturday night, in the big box of a gigantic, discount retailer. I nod at people, and sometimes they nod back. But I don't nod at everyone. Moments before encountering the couple in black, I'd passed a woman and a teenager (mother and daughter?), both of them in rather short shorts, arguing about Hamburger Helper. I didn't nod at them, because we didn't make eye contact. I looked at them, they didn't look at me. Was it that they assumed they'd be of no interest to me (although they were; any argument about Hamburger Helper fascinates me), or because they didn't even see me, because I was of no interest to them?
I turn right, and follow the couple in black down the main aisle for a bit. I'm smiling. Maybe it's because I'd just eavesdropped on a ridiculous conversation about Hamburger Helper, or because I'd exchanged nods with friendly strangers, or because my next stop is the ice cream aisle.
A smile is always an invitation to interaction, of course. So it's my own fault when a middle-aged woman pushing her cart in the opposite direction accosts me. She's a bit more overweight than I am, but slightly younger. Possible rosacea. Dyed yellow-blond hair, entirely her own, blunt cut, chin length.
"It just disgusts me," she says, flicking her head and an elbow in the direction of the departing black-clad man and woman, who are mercifully out of earshot. "Can you believe it, wearing something like that in this heat?"
Caught off guard, I mumble something about how it's a matter of personal choice. Thinking: I don't know you, but your decision to wear a too-tight jersey top from the Juniors department is also a personal choice, as is your decision to cram yourself into those muffin-top-inducing jeans. You are free to dress the way you want to dress. And so is the woman in the black, rhinestone-studded niquab.
But of course I don't say any of that. Because I'd like to think that I'm a nice, polite, Baby Boomer Midwesterner. She no doubt puts herself in the same club. God help me, she has looked at the way I'm dressed, assessed my age, and identified me as one of her own.
As she draws breath to make her next comment, I realize that I am a horrible person, because just as she's judging the people in black, I have judged, am judging her. Even before she stopped me, I had, competitively, evaluated her at a glance. And now I'm judging her because she's judging others.
"I just hate seeing it," she continues. "It looks so uncomfortable."
I should have pointed out that what people wear is nobody's business but their own, but instead, I lunge for the practical, secular, and inoffensive. "I dunno," I say. "I have days when I'd like to be able to go out in public, all covered up, without worrying about what people think of my hair or clothes." I mean this, although it's hardly the point.
She giggles, probably to humor me. "But this is America," she says. "We should dress however we want."
I nod emphatically, and resume my journey to the frozen foods section. I couldn't agree with nor loathe her more.
The couple in black are right behind me at check-out. I offer to let them go ahead of me, because they have far fewer items than I do, and I'm in no hurry. "Naw, but thanks," the man says. "We're good. We just came in for this," -- he holds up a loaf of sliced white bread -- "but then, you know, somehow we got a full basket." He laughs. His accent is 100% American, possibly from the South.
He turns, because his wife is struggling to get out of her chair. She limps over to the next lane to greet a friend who wears a flowery hijab. They kiss one another on both cheeks. The man behind me in line laughs another deep, happy laugh. The cashier asks me if I want credit or debit.
I load my groceries into my car, feeling humbled. I have mean, snarky thoughts all the time, but I try not to share them. I can usually find something good or at least interesting in most of the people I encounter. I remind myself that while tolerance is essential to being a good person, it's not the whole package. These insights are blessings at the end of what has been a long day, and I am grateful.
Now it's Sunday morning in America, and I'm wearing whatever the hell I want. The blond lady I encountered last night is probably in church, talking about sending clothing donations to missions in Haiti, oblivious to the fate of Syrian refugees. (There I go, judging again.)
And the people in black? I hope they're having a great day, and, like me, wearing whatever they want. But of course that is none, absolutely none, of my business.