It is Friday afternoon. It has been a long week. What am I doing at Walmart?
I push the buggy purposefully. The object of my quest is a car phone charger. I stop in front of a section marked “Android phone accessories” where all of the items displayed appear to be for iPhones. Utilizing my superior deductive capabilities, I move to the section marked “iPhone accessories” to find that, as I suspected, all of these items are for Androids. There are, however, no chargers.
I circle back to the check-out, where one Walmart employee is engaged in making a laborious return of some kind and a second is held captive by the flirtatious conversation of a middle-aged customer in cut-off jeans. I wait.
A third employee materializes and walks right past me toward a couple who are browsing the no-contract cell phone display. “Can I help you?” she asks them. “Yeh,” the female customer laughs, “if you can show us a cheap one!” This could, it is clear, take a while.
I take a couple of steps toward them. “Excuse me.” I lean into the huddle the three of them have made. “I hate to interrupt, but could you just tell me where car chargers are?” With a finger-point from the employee and an assurance that “That’s all right, honey; we ain’t in no hurry,” from the customer, I resume my single-minded pursuit.
About halfway to the rack to which I’ve been directed, two young women step out in front of me, not quite blocking my path, but making it clear that they want me to stop. “Are you a teacher?” the blonde one asks. “A principal?”
I see where this is going. They think they recognize me. They have seen my photo in the newspaper or, maybe, they’ve seen me in court and just can’t place me. “I’m a prosecuting attorney.”
They look at each other, smile broadly, and nod, confirming something, but I’m not sure what. “We were watching you and you’re so ...” She pauses to find a word. “Powerful.”
I nearly burst out laughing. “We could tell that you’re somebody who is ...” She stops. She is suddenly embarrassed. So am I. None of us knows what to do next.
“Can I ask you something?” The other one, petite and with the intense gaze of the dangerously naive, steps closer and begins to tell me, in words falling over each other like puppies in a kennel, of her current legal troubles. Nothing awful. What my colleagues and I call misdemeanor stupidity.
With the last embarrassing detail shared, she gazes up at me hopefully. I am, I suddenly realize, so much taller than she. “I’m really sorry,” I tell her, “but I can’t give you legal advice.”
She looks confused. She thought I was powerful. She thought I could fix her problem or, at least, make it less of one.
Unfortunately, the illusion of power is just that. An illusion. Regardless of what they saw when they looked at me, I can’t fix things, I can’t change what happened, I can’t save people. It is not a matter of effort or expertise, knowledge or skill-set, tools or timing. It is a matter of identity. And I am not a savior.
The blonde reaches out to pull her friend gently away and says to me, “It’s okay. Really.” Then, to her friend, “I didn’t think she could help, but she listened. She listened all the way through.”
They back away, smiling and waving in the disarming way of people who don’t know they have created an awkward situation, smiling and waving like grade-schoolers off on a great adventure, smiling and waving as though this was just an ordinary Walmart encounter between neighbors or school chums, as though it was not a hinge in the cosmos, a point on which something important bent at a new angle.
I am still for what feels like a very long time. I wonder if maybe it’s not that power is an illusion, but that it is just far more subtle in its manifestation than we realize. I wonder if maybe we are all far more powerful than we’ve ever imagined. I wonder if maybe taking time, paying attention, listening might be what fixes things, what changes things, what saves people.
It is Friday afternoon. What am I doing at Walmart? I am listening. I am listening all the way through..