N wasn’t at the grocery store on Sunday morning.
I went in all smiles, ready to talk Bengals, especially about that interception last week when Ja’Marr Chase had his defender beat, but he looked to the end zone before the ball. He bobbled it, batted it…right into the arms of the defender. What should have been a touchdown turned into an interception. I knew N wouldn’t think it funny as I did. She takes her Bengals seriously. Perhaps I could soften her pain. Besides, there’s always next week, which, in fact was today.
But N wasn’t in her usual spot overseeing checkout. I asked the first checker I found, “Where’s N?”
“She’s going to be out for a while.”
At first, I thought she was talking about an extended vacation, but the look on her face made me think again. “Is she all right?”
“It’s going to be a while,” the woman repeated. In the age of HIPA, I wasn’t going to get more than that.
Now my thoughts were traveling down that unspecified while into the future. Where did that leave me? Suddenly, it seemed, my Sunday morning shopping trips promised to be barren, joyless rote affairs; robbed of meaning, though they would still mean the replenishing of our refrigerator and pantry.
I had been down this road before. J had been my pal in the deli department, slicing meats and cheeses each week for my kids’ school lunches. Her kids followed mine to Walnut Hills. We found many topics of mutual interest to talk about. Then a scheduled uterine surgery revealed cancer. She never returned from her planned absence. All I could do was send her a note through the store and hope she would get it. As it happened, I saw J a year later on the walking track at the Mount Washington Recreation Center. She recognized me as we passed. Her hair had turned white. I didn’t recognize her. She had moved on to more suitable and remunerative work. I’m happy for her.
N is different. I thought she was a nut when I first met her. Her skin was unnaturally dark, the obvious product of a tanning salon. It did her seventy-plus-year-old face no favors, and i judged her for it. So I can’t say when or how my feelings went from mild disdain to genuine appreciation. Was it the weekly (in season) Bengals banter we started up? I suspect it was more about her constancy, her absolute reliability. Other checkers came and went, but N was always there at opening, early Sunday morning. Her dependability, yes, but her spirit, too. N speaks her mind. She can take my teasing. She’s real. Above all, N has the essential quality of any good friend: she seems to like me as much as I like her.
N, and J, too, are examples of what sociologists call weak tie relationships. The term was coined almost fifty years ago in a study about successful job referrals. More recently, the distinction gained new relevance in a year of lockdowns and social distancing. Isolation from some of our closest friends and family (strong ties) made us appreciate those informal social contacts that we were lucky enough to still enjoy: delivery drivers, neighbors on walks, grocery store checkers. The media have gotten on board and are touting the benefits of weak tie relationships for mental health. I know exactly what they are talking about. Without the Sunday morning interactions with N, brief as they are, I fear the colors of weeks will take more muted tones.
I will write a holiday card to N and trust the Remke staff to get it to her. I will wish her a speedy and complete recovery. I will say that I am thinking of her, but I know that’s not quite true. I’m thinking first and foremost of myself, as the paragraphs above attest. N is past retirement age. Well past. This–whatever this is–may clinch her decision to just stay home, avoid the headaches of a job as a frontline worker. That would be good for her. She deserves it. But where will that leave me?
There is still G, face mask under his chin, assiduously restocking shelves in a different aisle each week, regaling me with his woes or, more rarely, his hopes for an upcoming fishing trip, admonishing me to stay out of the cold or rain or whatever weather he imagines might ruin my day, or, perhaps really, his. G has a great smile, but G isn’t N.