Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Flirting with old people

In a hardware store as I am waiting for help from the guy who seems to be in charge and in control of the "nuts and bolts" aisle. He is talking to a colleague and an old lady accompanied by a much younger man. The two employees are looking for staples for an old stapler that the odd couple has brought in. After about 5 minutes of discussion, they realize that the store does not carry this stort of staples (special ones to staple cables in place). One of the employees leaves to help someone else but before doing so he bends toward the old woman and kisses her on the cheek. "Goodbye Mrs Jones" he says, "Come to see us again!". As I am wondering if they treat all their costumers this way, the woman turns to the guy whom I've been waiting for and she says "I'm sorry -- this is Mr. Jones" introducing her companion. The guy eyes him and says, jokingly, "I always knew you liked young guys. I didn't realize you liked them that young!" and he laughs.
Mrs Jones seems to be well known around here. She goes along with the joke until the store employee introduces himself to the young man, adding "I suppose you're the son?". "How did you guess?" is the answer he gets from the thin, balding guy who was on the phone when I first walked in the aisle looking for help.
The two men talk about staples and what needs to be done. It turns out that the woman needs some wires stapled in place in her home. The employee offers to come to do it. The woman can't believe the offer "I've asked you before and you always said you could not!" she starts. "That's because I was not sure what you wanted from me" answers the man jokingly. "I was scared." It strikes me that old women are the only ones with whom American society tolerates this form of teasing. In Europe, women have to fight not to be teased at work or in the streets. It is accepted as a form of compliment. "We tease you because we love you" sort of way. This is a no-no here, in a society jealous of its individual's rights with strong anti-harassment laws to protect them. So only old women are fair game. A tacit acknowledgement of their loss of power, their loss of appeal.
The old lady agrees to a visit by the guy to her house on Friday afternoon ("Not in the morning, I teach" she told him). She and her son leave. I turn to the guy and joke "I need your help but you won't have to come to my place to fix anything". He looks at me blankly and I know I've crossed an invisible line. I mumble something about the pieces I am looking for, forcing my smile and my French accent.


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