Small talk among virtual strangers is a traditional form of American non-communication just about all of us have engaged in at one time or another.
You know the drill:
“How ya doin’?”
“Have a nice day!”
“Whaddabout those Seahawks?”
Frequently dull, usually meaningless, small talk is an easy way to show you’re a regular guy and not one of those “quiet” types who unexpectedly climb up on the roof and begin taking potshots at passers-by with a rusty Mauser.
This easygoing communication doesn’t take a lot of thought and is usually quite harmless – or so I thought until a recent conversation in a rural convenience store took a sharp left turn toward the bizarre for no apparent reason.
Perhaps I should explain.
(Sure, why not?)
Trouble started a few days before Christmas as I motored through strategically unimportant Butte County en route to a holiday visit with my ex-wife and full-time kids in the exuberant mountain community of Paradise.
Approaching the outskirts of Chico, I decided to stop for some travel food and pulled into the parking lot of a small roadside market.
Everything seemed relatively normal (remember, we’re talking Butte County here) until I tried to purchase a fistful of beef jerky and a can of spicy tomato juice.
The clerk smiled amiably and asked “How ya doin’?”
Just as amiably, I replied “Well, I’ve got one eye open today.”
The salesperson’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed.
“I, uh, said I’ve got one eye open today. Just takin’ it easy – don’t want to see too much, ya know? Heh-heh…”
The clerk’s jaw tensed and his hands clenched into fists on the counter.
“Whaddya mean by that?”
The situation seemed to be getting a little bit out of hand and I hadn’t even received my change yet. Had I somehow poked fun at a local custom? Did the clerk have a glass eye? Did “one eye open” roughly translate to “Yer mother’s a slough pirate” in Butte County?
The salesclerk was now shifting back and forth on the balls of his feet and his rapidly reddening neck was beginning to throb alarmingly.
I tried to keep things light.
“I’m, uh, just a little drowsy, ya know? Man, seems like I’ve been drivin’ for hours. Gotta prop one eye open…”
The clerk now appeared to be hyperventilating.
Rather than once again trying to explain travel fatigue, I grinned widely and carefully enunciated the words “keep the change,” before slowly backing toward the door.
I managed to make it safely outside, but not before I heard the red-faced clerk tell an acquaintance how close a certain smart-mouthed yahoo had gotten to getting his clock cleaned but good.
I don’t know what I said wrong, but I sure know how to survive the next time someone asks me how I’m doing:
Carefully nod once for “good,” twice for “very good.”
And leave the change…
Originally published January 6, 2002