September 22, 2020

Why I wish I'd been more compassionate toward a woman who screamed obscenities at me in public

I split the holidays between New Jersey and New York this year—the former to spend Christmas with my son’s paternal grandparents and the latter to show my mother and sister around the city as they were making the trip for the first time.
I bought tickets to a show for our last night in the city, but my plans were nearly thwarted when we made our way to the theater during a downpour with just enough time to grab our seats.
“We can’t scan tickets on your phone,” the man at the door said plainly. “You’ll have to print them out at the hotel across the street.”
Of course.
I did as I was told, sprinting across the street and into the hotel. I’m not sure why I was surprised to see anxious theater-goers lined outside a packed FedEx Office center seeing as how we were all participating in the most tourist-friendly activity one can do in New York. Still, my heart sank knowing it’d be at least half an hour before I made my way to one of the open computers.
Fate stepped in as a hotel manager started handing out her business card and telling us to email her our tickets so she could print them at the front desk. Most of the crowd predictably shifted from the business center to the main lobby and I claimed an open computer without hesitation.
The moment I went to hit the print button, an irate woman stormed over to me.
“DID YOU PUT YOUR CREDIT CARD IN THERE?” she screamed, pointing to a scanner next to the computer.
I hadn’t and honestly didn’t realize I needed to before printing.
“You’re charging money to MY CREDIT CARD,” she yelled as everyone went silent watching the scene unfold.
“I…I didn’t see anything that asked for my card,” I tried to explain.
This woman wasn’t having it and proceeded to scream and curse and berate me for not understanding what she was saying. It was at this point I realized the computer charges by the minute for internet use, and she hadn’t logged out of her session before leaving.
It was also at this point I realized I was done being nice.
“So what you’re telling me is YOU forgot to log off the computer, which is why your card is being charged by the minute regardless of whether anyone’s sitting here, and that’s somehow MY fault?”
Talk about poking a sleeping bear.
“EXCUSE ME? My kid ran out of the room and I DIDN’T KNOW IT, OK?”
For a split-second, I considered connecting with her as a fellow mother who understands irrational frustration. That was quickly forgotten.
“Look, lady, that’s not my problem,” I said, knowing there’s no way in hell I’d say that in the South.
She snatched the mouse away from me, logged out of her session, called me a word I can’t repeat in print and stormed out, presumably to another show she wrongly assumed she could get into with mobile tickets.
The experience left me shaken, not because I’m not used to being screamed at—I am a writer, after all—but because I knew precisely why she acted the way she did over something so trivial.
She was navigating a cold, rainy night in New York with a young child two days before Christmas and couldn’t even make it to their destination without something going wrong. Even when she tried to remedy it, her child ran away from her, forcing her to multitask between a printer, her parental duties, and a credit card being charged $0.40 a minute.
I assume when she retrieved her child and returned to find me sitting at the computer, she was already at her breaking point. I’ve never attacked a stranger in public, but I’m all too familiar with those white-hot moments of stress and anxiety that seem to culminate at the worst possible time.
Am I saying I wish I had been more forgiving of a person screaming in my face for something she did? Not exactly. Excusing bad behavior is unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. I am saying I probably could have diffused it using my own experience as a mother to calm her down while reminding her I’m not a target and that no one should be treated like one.
All too often parenting is treated as an affliction by those without children or whose children are already grown, which is why so many of us relate to humor tied to the struggles of this job of molding human beings into functional members of society. We’re tired; we’re stressed; we’re pulled in every single direction in the most thankless of ways. And though it’s what we signed up for, that doesn’t make it any easier when our frustrations get the best of us.
Compassion demands more than having sympathy for another person. It’s how we take that emotion and use it to help people by way of sharing that suffering. Would the woman have responded differently to me if I had been more proactive about helping her solve the problem rather than asking why she blamed me for it? My guess is no, but who knows?
What I do know is compassion can and should exist in spaces where it’s rejected, as it’s easy to be compassionate toward someone who welcomes and appreciates it and much harder to open our hearts to someone who tells us they have no use for it.
And I’d rather be quicker with a kind word for another person than a clever quip for my own satisfaction.