South Florida is an exaggerated melting pot in which extremes of culture, economics and age are supposed to blend smoothly together. Instead, sometimes we just get a hot mess.
It was a busy, rainy Sunday afternoon at the Italian market. Everyone at the deli counter just wanted to get their items and go. Everyone, it seemed, but the very elderly couple who were not quite sure what they wanted. The frustrated young man behind the counter glowered at the couple and announced that while they came to a decision, he would wait on other customers.
Perhaps 50 years ago, when the world moved more slowly, the worker would have engaged the couple in conversation; perhaps he would have offered them a sample or two. And this was likely what the couple, or at least the husband, was expecting when he huffed off to the bakery, leaving his wife to place their deli order.
Upon arriving five minutes later and finding his wife still waiting while other customers were being served, the elderly man more or less exploded. He began loudly insulting the young man behind the counter while a middle-aged worker tried to defuse the situation, promising to be right over as soon as he finished with a customer.
But the elderly man was having none of it, and he continued his vitriol against the young man specifically and the market in general. In retaliation, the young man began to launch a counter-attack of dirty looks and an occasional “What did you say?” at the older one.
It was a classic South Florida misunderstanding, witnessed daily in shops, offices and parking lots. This particular Sunday, while trying to get half a pound of tuna salad, it was my turn to bear witness. Someone from somewhere else (another time or place) expects something to work a certain way, and when it doesn’t becomes enraged. Likewise, the person from this time and place returns the anger, not understanding why the first person is so upset.
I see the dichotomy between younger and older expectations daily in my medical practice. The older patients usually wish to sit and chat, will tell you about their kids, their pets or their significant other, while the younger ones wish to solve whatever issue they came in for and get out of the office as quickly as possible. When they meet at check-in or check-out, frustration can ensue. Although I couldn’t survive as a physician with just older patients, I’m not sure I’d want to do so with only younger ones.
The old seem to cherish relationships, while the young value time. And in today’s hectic world, while efficiency is necessary, it certainly isn’t sufficient. Without caring and community, life isn’t as rich.
As the man’s wife tried to soothe her husband, the middle-aged deli worker got the couple’s order. The older man and the younger man continued their stare down and then parted ways, likely to repeat a similar encounter with someone else a few weeks or months from now.
And that’s too bad because each had something to teach the other. Ultimately, we may never learn to love one another in South Florida, but maybe someday we will better learn how to live together.
Dawn Harris Sherling is an internist in Jupiter. She wrote this for The Palm Beach Post.