When you’ve learned to make your way quietly through the world, slinking into rooms so as not to rupture conversations or silences, you sometimes surprise people. You get right next to them before they notice: “AH! What are you doing there? I didn’t see you! How long have you been standing there?”
Their surprise, in turn, startles you. You’re suddenly jolted into recognition of the fact that, as unobtrusive and expert at not calling attention to yourself as you may be, you actually are still technically visible to anyone who squints their eyes in just the right way. Like one of those hidden images in a Magic Eye book.
Well, darn. Wish there were something to be done about that.
When you move quietly through the world, you learn things you’re not supposed to know and are privy to conversations that might not have happened as freely if your presence had been felt more deeply.
Understand, I’m not talking about deliberately spying on people. I simply mean that if I’m in a room working on something, I’m working on it quietly enough that other people in the room might forget I’m even there and carry on as if I weren’t. Whereas if I banged about and kept up a constant flow of chatter, imposing my personality on the room, everyone would be keenly aware of my presence and adjust their own interactions and behavior accordingly.
So the particular gift of quiet is being able to experience and appreciate what a particular scene is like without your own overriding energy applied to it – in short, to be fully present as an observer. The trade-off, sometimes, is that your presence can be a little too forgotten.
During my late elementary school years, Mom worked at a jewelry store in a strip mall. Since I wasn’t one for after-school programs and there wasn’t anyone at home to pick me up or receive me, I’d walk to the jewelry store and hang out at a desk in the back behind some one-way glass. One-way glass had to be one of the world’s greatest inventions, I thought. You mean I can see the world but the world can’t see me? I wondered why all glass wasn’t one-way.
Mom was an employee, not an owner, so I understood that the actual owner was doing a nice thing by letting me hang around the store. I tried to repay his kindness and avoid overstaying my welcome by getting lost as much as possible. I’d prowl the aisles of nearby Mexican groceries and bargain stores to kill the couple hours between 2:45, when I’d walk over from school, and 5:00, when the jewelry store closed and we could head home.
The bargain store was a favorite. I’d always see cool stuff and get ideas about what I’d do with it or who I’d like to buy it for as a gift come Christmastime. There was a big gumball machine by the front counter that had a few golden gumballs mixed in. If you popped in your quarter and got a golden gumball, you’d win a free candy bar. I won a free candy bar one time. I still remember the feeling of excitement.
When all else failed and Mom’s shift wasn’t over yet, I’d go to the video store. Right next door to the jewelry store, it was a little broom closet of a place run by a middle-aged Indian man. The long, narrow aisle the door opened into was nearly all there was to see. Customers could walk down the aisle to the back, examining rows on either side. At the back left was the counter with cash register and some candy for sale around it. At the back right was a little walled-off cubby about the size of a handicap-accessible bathroom, with no door but a curtain hanging down where a door should have been. “18+ Only” read a sign above the curtain. I figured they probably used that room for voting or something.
In addition to the movies lining the built-ins along either wall in this motel hallway of a store, there was one free-standing bookcase about 10 feet long by 6 feet high set at an odd angle too close to one of the walls, creating an extra, too-narrow aisle that could not accommodate more than one person at a time. If you hung a sharp right upon entering the store, you could enter this odd triangle of space where the comedy movies were shelved. Plainly visible from the front window, it was the only part of the store the owner couldn’t plainly see from his stool behind the counter. This also meant that these were the only videos in the store you could browse at your leisure without being painfully aware that the owner was right there in your peripheral vision, glaring at you. I usually came in and hung an immediate right.
I don’t recall ever renting a video from the store. There were fancier video stores in town, with newer movies and better ambiance. But I’d walk along the shelves and read the blurbs on the backs of the cases. I was, at that time, inexplicably fascinated by learning names of actors. I’d write lists of them from memory to entertain myself at home. So I considered this idle browsing a form of research.
If I hadn’t spent all my pocket change trying to win a ‘free’ candy bar on a given day, I’d conclude my careful examination of everything on the shelves by stepping up to the register and buying a licorice rope or a handful of gummy worms from a grimy plastic tub on the counter.
One day, about ten minutes after coming in and hanging my customary right into the triangle of solitude, my thorough examination of the credits on a copy of House Party was interrupted by footsteps. Keen observer I was, I could usually hear people stepping through the open doorway and walking up the center aisle. But these footsteps had been down the center aisle, toward the door. Headed in the wrong direction. I didn’t think there had been any other customers in the store – unless, had I missed an entrance? While I was contemplating all this, I heard the door jangle shut and latch closed.
Reshelving the copy of House Party in my hand, I turned toward the front window in time to see the owner stepping out into the parking lot. Trying the door, I found it locked. I knocked on the glass, but he was too far away to hear. Evidently, I had been browsing movies not 30 feet away from him (did I mention it was a very small store?) for 10 minutes without him even noticing I was there. Evidently, he had been so confident that nobody was in his little nook of an aisle that it had not even occurred to him to glance that way as he left.
I screwed up my eyes to read the hours on the door from the inside. Well, it certainly wasn’t 6 PM yet. Per the store’s own published rules, it was supposed to be open. My gaze followed the owner’s head into the parking lot as far as it could, in the direction of a pizza place across the way. Just a snack, then. But what if it wasn’t? What if he was parked off in that direction? What if I had to wait until… what (screwing up my eyes again), tomorrow morning at 10 AM?
Having never been locked inside a closed business before, I was unsure of what to do. Would banging on the glass set off an alarm? There was a phone behind the counter, but nobody at home to call. I didn’t know the jewelry store’s number. Besides, wouldn’t milling about someone else’s store and getting behind their counter to use their phone seem suspicious, like a clear violation of the universe’s natural division of shopkeepers and kid customers? As a customer, you do not wander behind the store’s counter like you own the place. Everyone knows that.
And so, to my young mind, the plan that seemed to make the most sense was to stay right where I was, right by the front window, rather than wandering the closed store like a criminal. I’d wait for just after 5 o’clock, when Mom would pass by on the way to her car (evidently having forgotten she had a kid around here somewhere, in this imagined version of events) and I would frantically try to flag her down through the glass like a prisoner in a department store window.
As luck would have it, a customer approached the door with a VHS in hand after just a few minutes. I decided to try my frantic, calling-great-attention-to-myself wave out on her. I flailed my arms around and shook my head back and forth with a wide-eyed look that I thought said ‘I’m not supposed to be in here!’
She tried the door handle, noticed me, said “Oh, you’re closed? I’ll come back,” and turned on her heel. Clearly my SOS would need some finessing.
After about 15 more minutes of no foot traffic outside and much hand-wringing on my part, the store owner returned from his unannounced pizza break. Wide-eyed and breathy as he unlocked the door, he wagged an incriminating finger at me.
“How did you get in here, boy!”
Well, I’m either a nine-year-old master of lockpicking and espionage or you suck at doing a basic sweep of your premises when abruptly closing up shop during business hours, I thought. “You locked me in!” I blurted out as I slipped past him and back to the safety of the jewelry store’s back room, where there was no reason to hope or expect that I’d be seen through the glass.
Even as an adult, as a kind of insurance policy against the potential downsides of going unnoticed, I often snap my fingers repeatedly as I enter a room. It doesn’t always get people’s attention, but sometimes it does. They often look at me a little strangely, but they rarely lock me inside when they leave.
Usually, that’s all the notice I require.