Friday, 20 May 2016


I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. I've just ridden twenty miles so my legs are aching. I've bought chicken stock and now I need milk. I'm at the chiller cabinet when she accosts me. She is small with bright blue eyes and reminds me of Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black. She is animated, fidgety. She jumps up and down as she speaks, although this is almost certainly just how I remember the encounter.

'Can I talk to you?'

I am uncertain. 'Sure.'

'First I've got to ask you, are you old enough to vote and do you have a really cool job?'

What the fuck? I wonder. 'Well, I can't vote because I'm not a US citizen.' You would think she might have got this much from my accent, but never mind. I'm trying to work out what the hell is going on here. One of the store people walks straight past us so I assume this to be a legitimate enquiry by some definition. This person isn't just some crazy woman.

She seems excited. 'This is a challenge for me because I have public anxiety issues,' and she describes what sounds like some kind of therapy performed by inducing random strangers to conversation. 'What do you do for a job?'

She speaks with the cadence of someone conducting an interview, and it doesn't occur to me that I don't have to answer, or that I should tell her to piss off. 'I'm a writer. Well, I write novels. I mean it doesn't pay the rent but...' Already I'm making excuses when I'm under no obligation to say a fucking word. I see-saw back and forth between self-deprecation so as to avoid it sounding like I think I'm some big shot, and a sort of assertive pride: I write books, people I don't know have bought them, so fuck it - I am a writer.

'Have you ever spoken in public?'

'Yes I have.' I briefly recall the open mic events last year.

'Did you enjoy it?'

'It was okay.'

The conversation has thus far endured for mere seconds, but she talks fast. It's bewildering. This is her therapy, I decide, something to do with anxiety. I think this was what she said.

'Do you like to read?'

I would have thought that was obvious, given that I've just told her I'm a writer. 'Well, yes.'

'I'm going down under next year,' she says and describes some sort of competition or something she has won. It seems to relate to the therapy, possibly. 'Can you guess what I mean by that?'

'Down under?'


'Are you going to Australia?'

She is pleased. 'You know, not many people get that one right. Someone guessed Mexico just now.'


'I know - I mean how is that down under?'

'Well, yeah.' Much later it occurs to me that she may have assumed me to be Australian, as some do. The accents apparently sound similar to Texan ears.

'Do you like to read magazines?'

She has thrust some sort of laminated promotional brochure at me, a brochure listing the kind of dull magazines you see on the news-stand - Beef Cook, Men's Trousers, Ladies' Hat Monthly. I realise that this is a sales pitch, or at least it suddenly feels like one, but her angle is bewildering to me.

'I read, but I don't really read magazines. Mostly I read books.'

She changes tack to sponsorship and it sounds like I'm about to be signed up for something. A few months ago I paid twenty dollars for a subscription to the local newspaper - something I have no real interest in reading - because it seemed like the easiest way to get rid of the guy who came to the door. I'm not going to be caught again, if that's what this is.

Now she's making some claim about sales of these magazines benefitting disadvantaged children. It sounds like horseshit but I'm stuck. 'Look I—'

'If you can't do that, well then just a cash donation, as little as—'

'I can't really afford this sort of thing.' I consider telling her that my wife and I are trying to buy our house and money is tight.

'It doesn't have to be much, as little as five dollars...'

'I could give you five pounds.' I still have English notes in my wallet, pictures of the Queen. The joke doesn't work, and I see I have a five dollar bill. I give her the five dollar bill. She carefully straightens it out and adds it to other bills kept in a small folder alongside the laminated brochure. It seems kind of professional, but I later remember that charity workers usually spend five minutes flashing all sorts of ID before they mug you.

'Thank you! You have a great day, you hear!,' and she's gone; and I am free; and I buy milk and cat food and make my way to the till. A minute later I see my little friend walk past accompanied by a partner, another woman. They look busy.

What the hell just happened, I wonder.


  1. This reminded me of several things. Firstly of the shitty excuse for CBT (for social anxiety disorder) I was once given on the NHS, where I was made to strike up conversations with random strangers in Starbucks, in order to reprogram my synapses that nothing bad can ever happen to me, or something. I didn't ask the for money though, and I only went through with it once, very half-heartedly – nothing bad happened, and nothing good happened either, everything was exactly the same.
    Second, I was often mistaken for an Australian in Minneapolis. Nobody called me a carrot cruncher or a sheep shagger like the cockneys do though.
    Thirdly, of being on holiday in Rome and being chatted up by a woman raising money for some junkie rehab, being shown lots of bad photos of abscesses and people dead from overdose and in situ, saying yeah man, I was an alcoholic you know, giving her whatever the Lire equivalent of a tenner was and getting frowned on because it just wasn't enough. I wanted to say, oh I'm sorry, yes, it's an insult, fucking give it back then. I never talk to them now, but often entertain the fantasy of screaming DON'T TOUCH ME! as I hurry past.

    1. The Australian thing is weird and it happens to me a lot. My only guess is that due to the popularity of Downton Abbey, they think *that's* an English accent, so anything different must be something else. Since writing this I've read a bit about something called neuro-linguistic programming, which I now suspect is what this woman was trying to do, and succeeded I suppose.