One voice rising above the many in Wal-Mart. Three rows over and two rows down. The dull roar that had just moments before been a sort of white-noise to the crowd was suddenly silent, and an air of unease drifted over the people around me.
“IS THERE ANYONE THERE WHO CAN HELP ME?”
The dozen or so people in the canned vegetable aisle, myself included, are now faced with a choice. What to do? Stay? Quietly move into the opposite direction and thereby be safely removed from whatever trouble may be going on? Or head toward the voice and help?
“PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME!!”
Many, most, take that moment to discover they have forgotten one particular item on their list that just so happens to be on the other side of the store. Away from the shouts. They retreat with heads bowed, as if they have just been caught doing something they shouldn’t.
Others, I notice, immediately jump into action and race toward the noise. These are people who seem inherently well-equipped to handle the situation:
An elderly lady with WORLD’S GREATEST GRANDMA stenciled on her sweatshirt and ten boxes of tissues in her shopping cart. Yes. If someone’s in trouble, you need a grandma around.
A twenty-something young woman with a radio clipped to her jeans and an EMT hat pushed down over her eyes. Her face is flushed with adrenaline and her steps are brisk. If these are shouts of pain, she’ll be necessary.
A cowboy, complete with battered hat, bandanna, and boots. I’m not sure what his purpose is, but everyone knows it’s always good to have a cowboy around when the natives start to get restless.
Also joining the rescue party is a young man in his twenties, dressed in fatigues and carrying a brown beret. His presence is obvious. Soldiers don’t run from trouble, they run toward it.
And then there is me, who follows the motley crew of do-gooders not because I have any necessary talents (I don’t) or because I think I can add anything to this rescue mission (again, I don’t), but because I just want to know what’s going on.
“I NEED HELP!!”
We converge on the voice and find that just about every Wal-Mart employee in the store is doing the same. Some amble with the please-God-what-now? attitude of those used to such occurrences. Others speed walk, anxious to get there but not first. A few, I notice, are nearly sprinting.
The Shouter is standing in the middle of the cookware aisle. Older man, dressed neatly in khakis and a white shirt. His face is red with exertion and his eyes have the crazed and confused tint of desperation. His left hand is raised into the air, begging for recognition. In his right is a skillet.
“What’s wrong, sir?” asks one of the employees, breathless from the trip from the other side of the store.
The Shouter looks at the crowd that has gathered around him, elated that someone has heard him. Help is finally here.
Grandma inches her buggy closer. The EMT has her radio ready to summon the ambulance. The cowboy and the soldier move to form a protective perimeter around the aisle. And me? I’m just standing there looking stupid.
Finally, the man speaks: “Can you tell me how much this skillet costs?”
Silence all around.
“Can…what?” the employee asks.
“I need to know how much this skillet costs,” the Shouter repeats, waving the pan in front of her. “There’s not a price on it.”
An almost uniform moan is breathed over him from the people gathered, to which he replies with a slight shrug.
“You mean you were doin’ all that hollerin’ and screamin’ for a price check on a skillet?” the employee asks.
Another shrug. “Yes, ma’am.”
She rips the pan from his hand and says, “Hang on.”
“Thank you, kind lady,” Shouter answers.
The crowd begins to disperse. Grandma is laughing now. She is used to this sort of thing. The EMT, however, is more than a little put out. Her adrenaline supply has emptied, and she’s tired. The cowboy and the soldier, I notice, are still standing guard. Just in case, their postures say.
And me, I’m still standing there looking stupid. But there is a smile on my face. A smile of knowing. Because even though this man has managed to aggravate about thirty people this day, he has my admiration.
It takes a lot for some people to admit they need help, whether it’s help as big as fixing a life or as small as pricing a pan. Pride gets in the way. “I don’t need anyone,” we say. “I can handle it myself.”
Not true, I think. Because no matter how self-reliant we say we are and no matter how strong we believe ourselves to be, we still need each other. We’re not living in a world of Me, no matter what we might think. No, this is a world of Us.