Tales of Ordinary Magic 4: "One day in the Co-op."
Sleight of hand
I first caught sight of him in the second aisle in the Co-op where I‘d gone to get bread and milk. He was sort of shuffling about in his pyjamas, looking confused.
He was holding a tin of something and looking at it, studying the label. Then he sort of wandered to the front desk and back again, still holding the tin, eventually putting the tin back on the shelf.
I caught all of this out of the corner of my eye while I was grabbing my bread and milk from the shelves. I didn’t want to look directly at him. It seemed impolite somehow.
You don’t often see strangers in their pyjamas in the Co-op. Or anywhere else, come to that, except maybe in a hospital or a mental institution.
It’s funny how the brain can construct such huge, elaborate story-lines out of the flimsiest of material.
In my head he was some lost old guy so fragile and out-of-touch that he’d wandering in off the street in his pyjamas and then forgotten what he was in there for. He was obviously ill. Why else would he still be in his pyjamas?
And then I got to the counter and they were all dressed in pyjamas too.
“What’s with the pyjamas?” I said to the check-out woman as I handed her my bread and milk.
“It’s for charity,” she said.
“That’s a relief,” I said, laughing. “I was wondering what was going on there.”
“I know,” she said. “Someone just came up to me and said that there was some old feller messing about with the groceries.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “He was shuffling about looking confused to me. I thought he must have escaped from an institution.”
At which point she broke out into peals of laughter and called down the aisle to the person concerned.
“That’s three now,” she spluttered, holding up her fingers to indicate the on-going tally. “This one thought you was mental!”
By which time everyone in the shop was screaming with laughter.
It’s not often that a shopping trip can turn into a comedy routine.
But it got me thinking about the nature of reality. We do this all the time of course. We build stories on the basis of appearances, without ever really knowing what lies behind.
We are dupes to our own belief-systems and we construct appearances to fit in with them.
This is the process by which we build our world. The assumptions are all implanted in us at an early age. They are the assumptions given to us by our parents, by our school, by TV and the media. After that we shape our perceptions to reinforce those assumptions in a continuous feedback loop. If we see anything unusual, we alter it to fit in with our overall world-view.
The shop assistant wasn’t old. No older than me, in fact. I’d made him old because he was wearing pyjamas. And he wasn’t confused. He was aware of my reaction to him, and was observing me.
So it wasn’t only a comedy routine, it was a sociological experiment. That’s why he seemed to be lingering about. He was making observational notes in order to tell his wife that evening.
Stage magicians play upon this propensity of ours to confuse reality in order to construct their illusions. They set up diversions, making a grand display of gestures, while all the real work is going on quietly in the background.
This is what they call “sleight of hand.” One hand acts as a diversion, while the other gets on with the business of messing about with the cards.
Politicians and advertisers use the same method.
You wonder how many more of our in-built assumptions are false; how much more dynamic and alive our world might appear if some of the deadening influences of routine were removed?
Who says that the trees can’t sing, that the wind isn’t alive and that the sun isn’t beating down on us with its boundless intelligence? Or that shopping in the Co-op can’t always be a comedy routine?
It’s all a matter of perception.
“It’s toffs and tramps next week,” said the check-out woman, indicating the charity box for my donation.
Maybe the next time I walk into the Co-op I’ll be a little more aware.
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