I’m Not the Pope

Pope John the XXIII

When I joined the Fewer Than 12 Items line at the supermarket recently, the woman directly ahead of me turned and made the  ‘After You’ sign with her hands. “Go ahead,” she said. “You have only one item and I have 12.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” I said smilingly back, and we both turned to watch as the sales associate rang up the purchases of the man in front of her, a process that took a while, what with the weighing of his produce and the waiting while he dug out his reusable bags.

Finally he was gone and this nice woman was next – but instead of unloading her items on the belt she turned to me once again. “Go!” she said again, standing back as if to let me pass in front of her. “You need to go, I can tell. I have an instinct.”

“No, really,” I said. “I mean, my day is no busier than yours.  It’s not like I’m the Pope.”

“The Pope! I wouldn’t give my place to the Pope!” she laughed.

“You don’t like the Pope?” I asked, worried that I had wandered into a dicey realm.

“It isn’t that. It’s more that… well, you know. Popes, Presidents: they get all kinds of breaks.”

This was true, as I knew from my junior high boyfriend, who has worked protecting both Popes and Presidents. They don’t even carry any money.

She went on. “So see I like to do what I can for …”

“For the little guy? Regular schlubs like us?”

“Exactly,” she said.  “Now go ahead of me.”

So… I went ahead of her.

And she didn’t even seem to mind that I turned out to be carrying over one shoulder my own silky reusable bag, which I use to put my items in as I shop, to save the trouble of using one of the store’s wire baskets. Thus, like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat, I drew forth a packaged salad, a bottle of water, and a pint-sized container from the aisle of bins where you can scoop out your own nuts, grains and seeds.

“What’s this?” asked the cashier holding up the small container.

“Oh I’m sorry!” I said. “It’s Red Wheat Bran. That’s what the bin it came from said.” He stopped and drew out a booklet and began laboriously hunting through columns of small print for it for the Wheat Bran code number. “I guess I was rushing so much I forgot to label it. I’m scheduled to meet someone in the eating area at the front of the store,” I added lamely.

“See? I was right!” said the woman, now behind me. “I told you I have an instinct! You did need to go first!”

I thought about this exchange for the whole rest of that day, and what we mean when we use the word ‘need.’

I guess maybe I did sort of ‘ need’ to get through the line fast and meet my party. But what I needed even more was to meet someone like this, people who keep their her fine antennae tuned outward, toward others, rather than inward, toward themselves, ever aware of what they might do to help. Those people are our real spiritual leaders in my book.