I haven’t hung out on the main street in my town for quite some time. It used to be a bustling hub of activity, bars, restaurants, shops and people. Lots and lots of people. Many years ago, I used to own a business there, but this time I was accessing a business there. My car needed some work.
I dropped off my car and had an odd slightly confrontational conversation with the auto shop manager.
“I don’t touch a car for less than $130,” he said.
“I thought you were just going to look at it and then give me an estimate?” I replied.
“I have a shop to run, people need to get paid, and I have rent.”
“I understand that, but you want to charge an hour’s labor for an estimate? It’s an hour job.”
We finally reached an understanding; the whole job would be an hour, estimate included. If it was going to take longer, he would call me. I asked to use his restroom.
“We don’t have one,” he said.
There was a breakfast place quite a few blocks down. I figured this was a great opportunity to see how things had changed down on main street. I put my hands in my jacket pockets and headed that direction. A young man passed me by. He nodded at me, and I nodded at him. Because that is what polite people do.
“Having a good day?” he asked.
“Do you have any spare change?”
“Sorry, I don’t.”
He followed behind me a little while. He didn’t say anything more, but it felt a little weird. I arrived at the breakfast place. I had some trouble opening the front door. There seemed to be a relatively complex system of locks on it. Finally, a man smoking a cigarette, directly under a no smoking sign, leaned over and opened the door.
“Thank you,” I said making eye contact.
“Can you spare a couple bucks?” he asked without hesitation. “For some breakfast.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” I said.
“Just enough for yourself,” he said. I didn’t answer. I just went inside.
“Do you have a restroom I can use?” I asked the waiter.
“The restrooms are for customers only,” replied the waiter.
“I want to wash my hands first,” I said.
“When you order. I’ll give you the key.”
I briefly glanced at the menu and ordered quickly; time, a brisk walk, and a coffee all contributing to a specific need taking precedence.
The key was an unwieldy scrap of iron that seemed strangely inconvenient but before I could delve into that, I noticed there were three messages on my phone. It was the auto shop. I stepped outside to use the phone. I had to steer clear of the man still smoking under that no smoking sign.
“Hi, you called?”
“Your driver’s door is stuck. I don’t want to force it open.”
“Just push in the button.”
“I don’t want to get blamed for pre-existing damage.”
“Just push in the button and open the door.”
I was shaking my head at the shop owner’s defensiveness, wondering what contributed to such combative behavior, when a woman passed by. She nodded at me and I nodded at her.
“Hi,” I said instinctively.
“Got any spare change?” she replied.
I covered the lower mouthpiece on my cellphone, using an age identifying behavior (there is no lower mouthpiece on a cellphone these days).
“I’m sorry. I’m on the phone.”
She stood there with her hand out for the duration of that short conversation. After which I worked my way around her, past the smoking man and his sign and back into the restaurant.
“I didn’t put in the order, because I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” said the waiter.
There is something happening in our society. Indeed, in our world. We like to think we here are insulated from change. But we aren’t. Twenty years ago, I visited China and was shocked to see machine gun carrying military patrolling the airports and that people wore surgical masks in public. Ten years later both were true in Europe. And now they are both true here.
Sadly, when the last person nodded at me on my way back to the auto shop, I just ignored them. I didn’t want to be hassled for spare change again.
Main Street isn’t the same as it used to be. Not here and not everywhere, I suspect. Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Sadly, he was silent on how the change in the world might see you. Things are changing and not necessarily for the better, everywhere, but especially, it seems, down on Main Street.