Monday, May 11, 2015

A Comfortable Chair at the Mall

I was deep into my second month of forced exile in Florida. I was still waiting for Dad’s house to close, at which point I could pack up and head back to California. The chores, as you might imagine, were endless, with new ones cropping up each day like dandelions. I decided that going to the mall and sitting in one of the comfortable chairs I had seen there might be a relaxing way to get my head out of the game for a few hours.

I was in the middle of reading a fascinating book about the Dutch coffee trade in the sixteenth century. The writer’s description of what was a new, and clearly medicinal, beverage had inspired me. When I sat in that comfortable chair in the mall I had with me a cup of hot coffee. And I don’t mean my usual blend of coffee with cream, sugar or perhaps some Almond Joy flavored crap. No, I would drink my coffee black, as they did in the novel, and I would appreciate coffee in its purist form.

I sat there sipping the black brew as I enjoyed watching the shoppers walk by. I tried to remain focused on the moment, and not worry about all the remaining details that I would have to deal with in the coming weeks and months. Across from me, about ten feet away, a young woman had taken out her swollen breast and began to feed her infant. I observed her for a few seconds, noting how natural it seemed, and then looked away to avoid making her feel uncomfortable.

I took another sip of coffee, and when I looked up I noticed that two or three young people with clipboards had infiltrated the area. I watched as they approached passers-by and asked each one if they would like to earn forty dollars testing toilet paper. At first I didn’t believe that I was hearing them correctly, and once I confirmed that I had I simply marveled that they could repeatedly ask people that question and still manage to keep a straight face.

And then the nagging in my head began. You know, it said, this really is a fine opportunity to write about something new. Why don’t you volunteer, make a quick forty bucks and then write about the experience? I had no doubt that testing toilet paper would make for great fun, and to tell the truth I was a little curious how the whole thing worked. I mean, did they drag you off to some hidden office in the mall, have you wipe with four or five brands, hand you two twenties and send you and your clean butt on your way?

In the end my comfort won out over my curiosity, and I understood why I had never wanted to be a journalist. This was just another hot story I let slip away. But my curiosity didn’t die completely, and so I continued to listen as the clipboard folks explained to their marks how it all worked. From what I pieced together, after you filled out the paperwork you would receive a shipment of toilet paper at your home, and it was apparently from the comfort of your own toilet seat that any testing would be done. Maybe there wasn’t much of a story here after all.

At one point a young woman hustled out of the hair salon where she worked and approached one of the clipboard people. “I’ll do it!” she said eagerly. At first I wondered if she was perhaps a textbook case of an adult fixated at one of Freud’s less evolved stages, but then it came to me. This woman had to be at the mall anyway, for her job. Why not pick up a few extra dollars for doing basically nothing? Maybe she signed up for one of these things every day, perhaps even two a day. At forty bucks a pop she could build a nice little side business testing toilet paper, and God knows what else.

I took the last sip of coffee, trying to appreciate the flavor as a European in the 1500’s might, treated myself to a final glance at the breast-feeding woman, hoisted myself onto my creaky knees and headed toward the mall exit. This really had been a nice way to pass a couple of hours. I’ll have to remember that when I get back to California, I thought, although I didn’t recall any of our malls having such comfortable chairs.


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