Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, January 04, 2007


We are now past Christmas Day, and for the majority of people in our society that means a respite from any notion of present buying. No doubt, this is a welcome break for most.

Then there are those of us who immediately have to start thinking of birthdays.

I’m thirty-three years old, and you would think by now I would have gotten used to it. In my immediate family (being my mother, father, sister, plus yours truly) there are three February birthdays. I’ll give you four guesses as to who has the one non-February birthday. I don’t know how it happened (never asked, don’t want to know) but somehow I wound up being born in September. As a child, I considered it a much better time than being born in February – just too close to Christmas, you know, which means less stuff received. In grade school there was always that one kid in class that had a December birthday, for whom I lamented upon every remembrance of his misfortune. I was much better off with my September birthday.

But I was the birthday oddball. The rest of my family was born in February, my late father even managing (as if it were a matter of his own skill and effort) to be born on St. Valentine’s Day. As a child, this was of little import to me. Birthdays mean that Mom and/or Dad will be taking you shopping to buy something for “you” to give to whoever is having the birthday. They will pay for it, they pretty much pick it out for you, and they wrap it. Your participation in the whole event is one of symbolism, or one of training for adulthood, which, though it will eventually flower into reality, at that point looks and feels like an empty ritual.

For me, since becoming an adult, birthdays have somehow failed to move into the realm of the upper ether where grand and unspeakable things transpire, as it seems to for some people. It could be that, though my family always gave presents and had a cake, we really didn’t celebrate birthdays in a very big way. I think my parents might have had a party for my birthday once when I was very young (I don’t remember for sure), but other than that, I’ve never had a birthday party. I don’t say that to criticize my parents - it’s just the way things were. It meant a lot to me this past September when my co-workers, knowing that I would be spending my birthday alone, threw a mini-celebration at work for me. They bought my lunch, they had a cake, and candy, and a balloon, etc. For some people getting a balloon might not mean much. But when your birthday is shaping up to be a lonely day, and when you’ve never had anybody give you a balloon before, it means a lot.

I think another reason that birthdays are less than grand for me involves the whole shopping event. When Christmas is over every year, there’s a little guy in my head that wipes the sweat from his brow and starts settling down in a recliner with a bag of Fritos, and it takes no small effort to keep him from drifting into a long winter’s nap, crumbs in his beard and all. The pressure of going shopping and finding the right thing for someone is, for me, akin to getting a term paper in on time. I have a feeling that there is a sin that needs to be confessed in there somewhere, but I’ll save that one for my priest.

As far as significant birthday events go, however, nothing can top what happened to me last year about this time as I was shopping for my sister’s present.

I was in one of those mega-bookstores, the kind with about everything you could want and a bunch of stuff that no one should want. I had a list in my hand of some of the things she was wanting, and had spent a fair bit of time wandering from the shelves to the computer trying to track down the things she asked for, all the while doing the math in my head to determine the combination of items that would suit my wallet. I had noticed people walking around me only slightly, as I was in too deep of a thought to pay much attention.

As I was walking from one part of the store to another, a young woman stepped out from around a corner and began walking a few feet directly behind me, keeping step with me. This lasted for only a second, and she soon turned just as quickly and walked back to where she had been. From the other side of the shelf which now separated us I heard a male voice say, “Just chase him, why don’t you?” This was a little odd, to say the least, which caused the matter to become locked in my mind. But I was too preoccupied with my shopping to think much of it.

After I finished gathering the things I was going to buy, I went to place where I was to stand and wait for a cashier to call me to the register. I was standing there a few seconds when I felt someone walk up behind me and stand very close to me.

“Hello!” came a female voice behind me.

I turned and found myself looking into the face of a young woman a few inches taller than me. It was the same woman who had walked behind me earlier. I had noticed her walking around the store with a guy, who I presumed was the voice I had heard.

I stared at her, more than a little bewildered, and tried to determine if this was someone I knew. As I stood there, her guy friend walked up behind her and, being taller than her, looked over her shoulder at me. They both had grins on their faces.

It was when the smell of recently consumed alcohol wafted from the young lady’s breath into my nostrils that I realized what was going on. I had missed the glazed-over look in her eyes at first.

“Hey,” I replied, and turned around to wait to check out.

The cashier called me up almost immediately and began ringing up my purchase. I paid him, and as he handed me my receipt, he said, “And here’s a thirty-percent off coupon for your trouble today.”

Trouble…trouble…I couldn’t quite figure out what the “trouble” was that he was referring to. The only thing I could figure was that they kept a close eye on the customers, and that they had noticed that I had been wandering around a lot and had looked up several things on the computer before coming to the checkout. But it was several days later that this occurred to me. At the time, I thought the “trouble” he was talking about was getting hit on by a drunk girl. Some trouble, I thought. For a ninety percent off coupon, I would have let two other drunk girls hit on me.


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