VAMPS, VAMPIRES, ELVIS, AND ME
It was October 31st and the scene inside my local Safeway was surreal. This store is just blocks from Humboldt State University, and this late afternoon it was overrun by students dressed in creative costumes, carrying copious quantities of candy, chips, and beer in anticipation of Halloween parties they would soon be attending. I, a middle-aged woman just off work and shopping for needed groceries, felt strangely out of place.
Halloween is a holiday that has always created an internal struggle with my beliefs. I had reached a compromise years ago, choosing to see it as a pretend time for children, a time to embrace creativity and pretense, and a time to laugh at fears from a place of security and in a safe situation. So during my parenting years, I joined in the fun, on occasion yelled "Boo!", dressed my children in fun costumes and took them around to neighbors for safe trick-or-treating. But this was different.
Today there were no children in these aisles, and as I pushed my cart forward, the people and their costumes took on quite a hard edge. Although I was in awe of the students' creativity and attention to detail, I became increasingly uncomfortable as I encountered young people in creations realistically evil and socially degenerate, who were rushing by with attitudes that seemed to match their attire. A group that had just passed me had been downright rude and pushy.
Travelling the aisles, I passed several witches and demons of the night, a pale-faced, blood-dripping vampire, some hard-looking, scantily clad women I could only guess were pretending to be ladies of the evening. I did come upon a standout Elvis dressed in the white, studded costume Elvis impersonators like to wear, with the open front shirt, big belt, and carefully coiffed glossy, black hair. This massive young man who stood about 6' 4", and his hair 4" above that, was most impressive. The girl with him was quite cute, dressed in a white sailor's uniform, but her refreshing charm quickly faded from memory as I turned and encountered more students costumed to celebrate the various evil spirits representative of this night.
I have long thought of this store's staff as one of the friendliest I had ever encountered. Usually the workers here made the chore of shopping enjoyable simply by their willingness to serve and their cheerfulness. But today, layoffs loomed due to a freight driver's strike over which this store had no control. No one knew when the strike might end. Many items were already missing from the shelves, and customers were starting to complain. The normal goodwill and friendly service had been replaced by a sense of tension and uncertainty.
I entered the checkout area eager to finish my shopping and get out of the store. Everyone seemed to be rushing to be someplace else, and there was a strange edginess in the air. It troubled me. Waiting in line, I looked around for reassurance, but all I saw were strangely acting people in even stranger costumes. No one was smiling. There was none of the usual friendly banter. The girl in line behind me stared at me with hollow, worldly eyes. She wore excessive and harsh make-up. I could not decide if she was in costume or not, but I did sense her impatience and negativity.
I watched Elvis checking out at the stand next to me. I still found his costume entertaining, but his countenance now was one of hostility, complete with snarly lip. Normally, I enjoy viewing human nature, but today I could not shake an overpowering sense of unease. It had permeated the entire store and was affecting us all.
My clerk was struggling to remain pleasant, but she was obviously tense and stressed. I felt anxious to get outside and escape the heavy feeling of unrest and discontent surrounding me. As the clerk scanned my last few items, a surprising sound, lovely and out-of-place, filtered through the sounds of rush. Shoppers' heads turned, attempting to find the source of the hauntingly beautiful music. As the slow sweet strains of an unfamiliar melody settled over the crowd, a silence enveloped all activity until only the pure sound created by the skillful play of a lone harmonica filled the store. The music was soulful and peaceful, and its unexpected beauty captivated me and all those around me. The unrushed continuing refrain settled over the strange crowd like a canopy of serenity. No one dare break the moment by speaking. All work ceased.
My eyes searched in the direction of the music. Finally, I saw the source. Two checkout counters over from me stood a short, silver-haired lady with an amazing angelic face playing the harmonica. In awe I stared. We all stared. With the last poignant note still reverberating in the air, she lowered her harmonica, placed it in her matronly-styled black purse, and snapped the purse shut.
A few seconds of collective silence enveloped the previously bustling store. Then a spontaneous clapping filled the air. I looked around and saw vampires, vamps, Elvis, and me all united in joy, across the generations, clapping in appreciation of the gift she had just given us. When the snarly-lipped Elvis dropped his façade, smiled openly and clapped wildly, I felt a strange, wonderful oneness with him.
Wearing a humble, Mona Lisa-type smile, the giver of our joy quietly gathered her groceries and walked out of the store. We all watched in silent respect. After a few seconds, the hum of activity resumed, but with one major difference: We were all changed. For a few brief moments, beauty and peace had entered our world, and all stress had ceased. Around me, people wore wide-eyed expressions of amazement over the simplicity of the source, an unassuming, grandmotherly figure who solely orchestrated our metamorphosis. Stangely, there was no buzz around me as to why she did what she did. No analysis…only appreciation.
I walked to my car a changed person, marveling how one little, charming old lady had risked the possibility of personal ridicule to change for the better the mood of an entire grocery store without saying one word, but by speaking eloquently through her gift of soothing music-a gift not asked for, but sorely needed. Vamps, vampires, Elvis and I all heard and heeded the same powerful message played from her harmonica that Halloween-Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men.