Last night I went to a convenience store. I was joking with one of the two female cashiers working the late night shift when this guy stormed in, shouting obscenities, totally agitated.
I was scared—sure he was on methamphetamines—drunk and dangerous.
He was about 30 years old, of average height and weight. He was pacing, swearing repeatedly, saying he’s going to kill ‘this guy.’ Then he grabbed a glass bottle from the cooler. He said he would use it to smash in the other man’s skull; he wishes he had a gun on him; all this in a total rage.
I was too shocked to make out anything this man was yelling except for those scary threats—and I felt threatened.
So I kept my eyes on the short, stocky, black woman working behind the counter, wondering if she’s got some kind of alarm. I try to assess how scared she may be and able (or unable) to save my life. She’s hard to read: seems very calm and alert, listening and evaluating.
After some time, she slowly walked over to where the phone was, picked it up and dialed.
The guy temporarily stopped pacing, and shouting, and swinging his bottle. I waited for him to attack her. But before he had a chance, she calmly held out the receiver to him, clearly communicating that she wanted him to speak to whoever was on the other end. He looked perplexed. Her mouth barely formed the word ‘police.’ He took the phone and an outburst of insults and obscenities at the police began.
Now I was convinced the man was crazy. I glanced at the cashier again, but she remained undisturbed, yet tacitly acknowledged my implied question: “Does he really expect the police to come and help him out”? (talking about killing the other man with his bare hands, now?) But then maybe this will prompt the cops to get over here fast……and arrest this maniac.
After the scene on the phone, I am for the first time able to think. I remember learning about ‘feeling opposites.’ Those are feelings that operate together in pairs, and usually one is in the foreground, while the other is in the background, i.e. anger and fear, rage and helplessness, ecstasy and agony.
I suddenly understand what this man is experiencing. My previous fear is replaced by empathy. The intense rage this man has been expressing, and which is scary, and very threatening to unknowing bystanders, and even to those who should know better, like police officers, was almost certainly a direct reaction to a very frightening experience this young man must have had very recently, and which involved another man and a situation which made him feel utterly helpless.
I turned to the man and waited for him to look in my direction, then I asked: “What happened?”
“The f***ing piece of s*** jumped me! attacked me! almost killed me! came from nowhere out of the bushes…….holding a knife! He comes in here…and I will kill him…..bash in his head!”
I get the idea. When he swings the glass bottle once again, I feel somewhat relieved—until the ‘other man’ opens the door, and enters this small convenience store.
No question! ‘Disgusting piece of s***’ suddenly sounds immensely flattering in the context of this person’s overall appearance. An image comes to my mind, that of the deep contents of an outhouse that has not been cleaned for a decade.
He is headed right over to the beer cooler when the cashier speaks up.
With a calm and clear voice she tells the guy that she will not sell him any alcohol, and that he has had enough.
When he begins to argue with the cashier, she repeats herself.
I was impressed that he didn’t just attack her, or just take the beer and walk out, ignoring her. Instead, he continued to argue with this woman, who is no taller than 5’1″—but she’s got something else about her— an air of authority. She showed no fear; appeared unimpressed and in control. Not once did she raise her voice, make threats or give warnings.
The guy left the store with a look bordering on obedience.
It is at that moment, when this short, stocky, strong, skilled, powerful, wise and courageous woman becomes my hero.
Her actions have not been lost on the ‘wounded man’ either, the one who not too long ago was swinging a glass bottle, shouting insults at the police, fully prepared to kill his attacker, and who in return would almost surely leave this victim of his with many nightmares yet to come.
The man appeared to be in shock now, mumbling something about the brave cashier; no more swearing. He looks utterly exhausted, and somewhere lost in space.
I paid for my groceries when the other cashier crawled out of her hiding place. I tell my hero how much I respect her. Her response: “Nobody messes with me!”
The rest of the story is rather uneventful.
On second thought, I returned to the cash register and handed the cowardly cashier another dollar, then picked up a piece of candy and placed it in the wounded man’s hand.
“Supposed to be good for endorphins—make you feel better—the chemicals in chocolate,” I say.
He looked at me from far away and thanked me.
I left the store about 15 minutes later, declining my hero’s offer to accompany me to my car, and thank her again.
I pass the ‘bums’ as I drive away. They are hanging out by the bike path, collecting empty bottles.
I try to calculate: if I were to run over them, could I manage to get all four of them in one hit?
Katrin Reichhold lives in Eugene, Ore. Interests include group psychotherapy and psychodrama. She is also an RN.
Reichhold, K. (2009). Ordinary Heroes. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/ordinary-heroes/0002368
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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