Last week I went to lunch with three of my coworkers. We went to a tapas place located two blocks from our office. This place is a good place, and new to our lunch hour rotation. It is not very hard to find a good place to eat in our neighborhood, actually it is a pretty great neighborhood for eating, but I have worked here for nearly five years and so have grown tired of the usual lunch specials: the greasy plates of Thai basil tofu served with free side salad (iceberg lettuce, tomato slice, carrot shavings, half teaspoon peanut sauce); the undercooked veggie burgers dressed with chipotle aioli and served with free pop (six ounce glass, half ice); the 12” Subway Veggie Delight that think I will eat half of and save the rest for later only then I eat slightly more than half and it doesn’t seem worth it so I eat the whole thing served with the half-cooked chocolate chip cookie that is really the only reason to go to Subway. The tapas place doesn’t dally in lunch specials. It serves what it serves. It is a good place.
We were all having bad days, or slightly bad days, and it was grey out and cool. The waitress asked how many and we said four and she repeated “FOUR!” like this was very shocking, and I made a joke about that and she looked at me like I was very crazy. We were seated in the back, at a table next to a well-dressed young man who was drinking tea and reading the paper. There was no one else in the back and there was something strange about it, lit too brightly and with boxes piled up in the corner booth. We sat and we looked at our menus and I said something probably about tzatziki and then the man, sitting next to us, his phone began to ring. He didn’t acknowledge it and the phone rang and rang and then stopped ringing. My coworkers and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Then the man’s phone rang again, and he looked at it, and he sighed, and he picked up the phone and he said, a little too loudly, “WHAT.” I held the menu over my face to hide my laughter. “WHAT,” said the man. “NO. NO. NO. … I ONLY HAVE … I ONLY HAVE ONE BLUE SHIRT! ONE! BLUE! SHIRT!”
At this point I was giggling but nervous about my giggling, because the man was so loud and because I was not particularly in the mood to get into a fight with someone. This man seemed like the kind of man who would get into a fight with you, the kind of man who would be on the phone yelling about shirts and drinking only a tea in a small restaurant with a brisk lunch business, the kind of man who would welcome the opportunity to fight if you just caught his eye the wrong way. And with a drink in me, or a bad day, or a direct insult, I will fight a man like that. It is not a thing that I am particularly proud of; it is not brave or honorable so much as it is defiant and stubborn. I’ve elbowed people at rock concerts, I’ve told a guy on the subway that he better not fucking raise his voice to me. In middle school an unimaginative bully every day used to sit next to me so that when it came time to get off the bus I had to beg her to move. One day, finally, I braced myself against the seats and shoved my entire side into hers. She was bigger than me, much bigger, and so technically it was a wasted effort but at the time it felt like the only thing that would release me from her.
More people were seated in our section and things with this man escalated. He got louder, and took more calls, and shouted worse and worse things. He stood up. He cursed. Adrenaline pumped through me. My coworkers and I stopped laughing and instead sat there with miserable expressions fixed on our faces, trying to tell each other stories that could overwhelm the situation. It was terrible. The man tried to engage us, asked us if the ring on his phone was BOTHERING YOU and if so then SORRY IT DOESN’T TURN OFF. We averted our eyes. The waitress did, too, and the other diners nearby. One of my coworkers leaned close to us all and said, it’s like we’re on one of those hidden camera shows. We agreed that being on a hidden camera show would be a great relief. Like Boiling Points, I said. Where you win money. Instead of real life, where you have 60 minutes to unwind your feelings and instead they get wrapped tighter and tighter around an uncontrollable and cruel thing.
There are two bathrooms in this restaurant and one of them had a sign on it that said Out of Order and I was looking up, at the bathroom, and then suddenly the door to that bathroom opened and a television crew walked out. It felt like thousands of people but it was only four, or five maybe, a crew from the Anderson Cooper daytime talk show led by a producer who proudly announced that the asshole who had been ruining our lunch was in fact an actor, and we were all the lucky victims of a “social experiment” about rudeness in public places. The actor threw up his hands and said “sorry everybody! sorry!” and the waitress set our food down with an apologetic smile and suddenly we were surrounded by people with releases in their hands, asking if we’d sign, asking if we’d want to come on the show and talk about our experience. “We got some great reaction shots of you!” said the producer to one of my coworkers, the one who had been having the worst day of all. They pointed out the hidden cameras and I looked at the lights that were lit too brightly.
I waited for the flow of adrenaline to subside but it didn’t, not exactly. I still felt like fighting but in a different way. Like I’d tried to shove the bully back but it hadn’t made a difference—the anger was there but the outlet had sealed. I did not feel like eating, and also the waitress had got my order wrong, and also our lunch break was fast coming to a close. A producer was working the room, briefly pausing at each table to ask us questions and then disappearing before we’d finished answering. He asked us why we hadn’t asked the man to quiet down and we answered almost in unison: don’t engage with crazy. The producer frowned. Had the actor seemed crazy? And before we could respond he was at the actor’s side, whispering notes to him. I waited for the producer to say that they’d be paying for our food. He did not. I skimmed the release. I signed the release. I could have said no but I was trying to stay upbeat. I was trying to have a good lunch. Several of the others seated in our section did not sign the release and so in the segment you see us, a lot. I’m pressing my lips together, pulling at my hair, my mouth twitching with a combination of amusement and fear. The whole thing is a little bit funny, or it is not very funny at all. It depends on how I tell it.
In the end, the telling is all I have. The details I siphon off and the details I embellish. Whether or not I tell you that ultimately what I felt was not anger or amusement but a profound helplessness. When it was a man being awful in the back of a restaurant, I couldn’t do anything. When it was an actor being awful in the back of a restaurant, I could do less. I had been working with rules that were not rules. I had made assumptions based on experience and observations, assumptions made invalid by a crew of people wedged in a small unisex bathroom. On the way back to the office we made jokes about The Truman Show; later in the week I felt a particular pang watching The Cabin in the Woods. None of us went on the show to talk about our experience. The first time I watched our segment I did it with the sound off. There is a lot that I cannot control and I am working on understanding that but for now I am telling you, this is what happened to me. This is how I felt when I lost my favorite part of my workday, when we weren’t even on fucking Boiling Points, when I got up in the morning and the world decided how to be.