The man at the grocery store

My wife is paranoid. She’ll admit it as readily as I say it, but she’ll call it “observant” or “careful.” She’s suspicious of people I’d pick up as hitchhikers or trust to give me a vasectomy. These are probably not the best examples, but my dad once picked up a hitchhiker when I was a kid, and I’ve never met a more risk-averse man (my dad, not the hitcher). My urologist told dirty jokes while he was cutting apart my netherparts, so I think I am speaking with some authority. My wife worries about life, and I live naively through things that should’ve probably had me killed or imprisoned a long time ago. The wife and I are a good personality fit, what with having kids and all.

My wife–a woman who will occasionally have a glass of wine but not so much that it stops her from keeping a keen eye on the ne’er-do-wells and kicking them in the balls if they get too close–can spot narcs better than most hardcore drug users. Just the other day she picked a narc right out of the grocery store. Every time my wife went to pick up some organic turkey breast or free-from-steroid-cow-milk yogurt, she’d spot the same guy roaming the aisles talking on his cell phone like he didn’t have a care in the world. I’d probably seen the guy a few times, too, but I tend to focus on the fatty pork products more than the people around me. It’s likely to end with me getting stabbed by a guy with a cell phone.

After what the wife considered to be a reasonable number of encounters, she did what any person of her ilk would do. She reported the guy for being at best obsessed with talking on his phone in the grocery store, and at worst some sort of celery-sex fetishist. The manager was impressed and told my wife in effect, “You just made our undercover security guy.” My wife, who isn’t one to hold her tongue, casually informed the manager that his security guy sucked and couldn’t work a detail at The Wiggles, let alone stop shoplifting in the peanut butter aisle. Intrigued, the manager pressed my wife for details. She passed on a few pointers on how the guy could blend in. The next time she went the store–a major regional chain–it had employed her suggestions. To put a finer point on it: she picked out a bad guy who was actually a good guy trying to blend in with bad guys and turned him into a better guy at blending in with bad guys he wanted to bust.

I decided my wife could forever be the security specialist in our house and that I’d just shut up when she started talking about how “that guy” looked “creepy.” I also decided not to tell her that I recently found myself on a dark street of a major city with a few thousand dollars in my pocket that I’d forgotten was there, or about the time I followed a man named Pablo–who I didn’t know–through the back alleys of a South American city to find a literally-underground after hours club that literally shushed us when we walked in the door so as not to disturb….well, I didn’t dare ask at that point. Point is, my wife wouldn’t have done these things, and I did, because I’m stupid and irresponsible. And fun. But mostly stupid and irresponsible.

I was at the grocery store today with my toddler, Dos. I was picking up some shrimp, andouille, potatoes, and corn. We vroooomed through the aisles in the cart (they call it a “buggy” in the south), played drums on the jelly jars, and chatted up the fish monger about whatever was happening in the world of seafood. I didn’t see the narc, because I wasn’t looking. I couldn’t force myself to do it. Every time I looked up, I was looking at food, my beautiful child’s smile, or one of the ancient men who wander the grocery store aisles at 4pm on a Thursday afternoon.

It was about these old men that I thought as I drove home with my seatbelt strapped tight across my chest. Every old man moved slowly, deliberately, and with no hint of a smile. They had lived to an age that any one of us would call respectable, and yet they seemed alone and unhappy. It made me unhappy to look at them. It was only by looking down at Dos in the child seat of the cart and hearing him exclaim, “Vvvvvrrrrrrroooom!” that I could find myself happy and oblivious, back in the blissful moment of being a thirty-something father who can shop for sausage on a Thursday afternoon with his mop-headed son.

I looked again to the old men to see if they were unhappy because they were truly sad, or only because they were having to shop instead of smoke a pipe and sip a whiskey on one of the last days of their life. I couldn’t tell, and I’m not sure I’ll ever know until that’s me pushing the cart.

It’s a tough paradigm and weird reality that forces us to be constantly on guard against evil, rising oil prices, and falling skies, and yet expects us to be first-world carefree and teaching our children that to live is to smile. It is, as near as I can tell, the hardest thing about being a parent. The responsibility is to first make sure the children are safe, and second make sure they are happy. Both responsibilities share a near-equal importance, but it’s sometimes hard to find that sweet spot in the middle of the Ven diagram.

The only thing I know is that it’s best for my children and best for me that I have my paranoid wife in the house. I’m fortunate that she knows how to have fun and watch out for the bad guys at the same time, because I’m better at the former than the latter. Just ask Pablo.