You, If The Walls Had Ears

“Even if nobody is home, act like the walls can hear you.” – Jewish saying

The other day I went into a store with Buddhist books and Tibetan artifacts.

It was empty.

I wasn’t totally amazed, since we’re dealing with a worldview steeped heavily in karma and reincarnation – i.e., if you steal a book, be prepared to return as a goat.

I wandered up and down the aisles. There was Becoming Enlightened, the book my friend Linda gave me five years ago. It started me on a journey; the front cover brought back a swirl of complex feelings.

“Look,” I said to my daughter. “That’s the Dalai Lama book, the one Linda gave me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, reminding me of the futility of trying to translate your memories into other people’s minds.

“Should we go?” I asked. There was more stuff to see, like T-shirts and flags and jewelry, but it felt like we’d had enough.


And then suddenly all the beans I’d eaten here in Santa Fe caught up with me.

Even though the store was empty, that was embarrassing, I thought.

I grabbed my daughter’s arm and rushed forward to the exit.

Not sure why, but just then I turned my head right and saw a woman standing behind a counter. Now my face turned really red.

“Thank you very much!” I automatically chortled in this false, bright way. And the woman just looked at me.

I could swear she shook her head as the two of us hustled out the door.

* * *

Later on I go to this store and there’s a beautiful thing I want. It’s irrational to spend any money on it, because it has no use.

But it’s beautiful, and nothing else I’ve seen is quite like it.

The saleswoman sells it to me and wraps it up.

Sure enough, ten feet down we see something more or less exactly the same, only cheaper.

Obviously a discussion ensues. And we have very little regard for stage volume.

“You can get the same thing over here as you paid there.”

“No, it’s not the same,” I insist.

“It’s exactly the same. You got ripped off,” comes the reply.

“Yeah, mom. You did.”

“You didn’t even see what I bought,” I reply. “I am telling you – this version here is a piece of s**t.”

We’re going on and on, and suddenly I realize…we’re having this conversation right in front of the cashier, who looks to my eyes like an owner. This is bad…because I’m right in the middle of buying something else, and here I am insulting the establishment!

“Uh,” I look her in the eye and try out a baldfaced lie, “I wasn’t saying that YOUR merchandise is a piece of s**t. Really.”

I back away slowly, because she has knives in the showcase glass.

* * *

The sociologist Erving Goffman was famous for writing about the social world as a “front stage” and a “back stage.” How we regulate our selves, and our social spaces to focus the audience on the “nice and clean” equivalent of a retail space.

We try to divert others’ attention from the frequently nasty action that takes place behind the scenes.

I think about Goffman here in Santa Fe. Because it’s hard to take a family vacation and always be in a good mood. People get cranky, plans get messed up, and sometimes you just need a break.

The social stratification is also upsetting here. The strain on the customer service folks as they try to keep up appearances and please the rich.

But most people in Santa Fe are customer service workers – not vacationing or retired. There are stickers in windows urging a living minimum wage. Walking down a side street today it became clear that human trafficking is here. All around there is homelessness. Dark side stuff that isn’t so pretty.

Everyone has those awkward moments, when a private “oops” goes public. Every family fights, every company has incidents, every city has social ills.

But how far can you let an oozing wound go:

  • Before it becomes a gaping wound?
  • Before surgery is required?
  • Before the body is hurt so badly, it reaches the point of no return?

We have to take better care of our people.


All opinions my own. Photo (not of Santa Fe) by Ed Yourdon via Wikimedia.

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