Jewish Journal

Seeing Humanity Through Two Bags Of Moldy Cheese

by Peter Himmelman

July 10, 2012 | 6:00 pm

The Ethics of Our Fathers, an ancient Jewish text, tells us there are four distinct types when it comes to anger:

  1. Slow to anger quick to pacify
  2. Quick to anger quick to pacify
  3. Slow to anger slow to pacify
  4. Quick to anger slow to pacify

Can you see yourself? The best of the bunch is number one. This person hardly ever gets angry and when she does, she’s easy to cheer up. At the bottom of the list is of course, the least desirable type. Easily annoyed and very difficult to assuage.

I’m number three. It takes a lot to make me angry. I pride myself on the fact that I only get steamin mad about once every three or four years. The bad part is that when I do get angry I go a bit nuts. Three years ago I got so enraged that I heaved a cedar picnic table across the width of our backyard. See if this little incident would have made you angry too:

I needed to rent a short-term apartment for our family and after the owner and I had agreed upon a price, we shook hands. Part of the agreement was that I’d need to move in the following Sunday. Our family worked like dogs to get our things packed, rent a van, contract some (non-refundable) movers and show up at the apartment -only to have the owner tell us he’d rented the place to someone else. They’d agreed to pay thirty bucks more a month.

That’s when I became a cartoon character - eyes bulging, hair on fire, and smoke billowing out both ears. After a fruitless phone conversation which ended with the apartment owner threatening to sue me for slander, I flung our picnic table with the same adrenalized strength a mother gets when lifting a minivan off her infant.

OK, that’s what happened in the distant past, now here’s me last week:

I drive to my favorite ethnic market and purchase two bags of cheese that I’d be using for some home-made pizza I was planning to make (yes, I make the dough and everything, - relax, it’s easier than you’d think.) I open the first bag and there’s a big wad of green mold at the top. The second bag didn’t have any visible mold but it smelled of decaying muskrat. No big deal I think to myself, the pizza can wait and I decide I’ll take the bags of rotten cheese back to the store in the morning.

I get there early and the guy at the register tells me he can’t do an exchange because I don’t have my receipt. My pulse rate goes up slightly.

“Well, can you please get the manager because I spend a fortune at this store and it would be incredibly stupid on your part not to do an exchange” I say.

The refrigerated foods guy comes to the register and says the same thing. “No receipt, no exchange.” Pulse rate goes up further.

“Guys,” I say. “I understand that you’re obviously parroting the owner’s general rule but in this case intelligence dictates that you abandon dogmatic principle for a broader view. Namely, that you’ll be in better stead with the store owner—the guy that writes your checks—if you exchange the rotten cheese then you will be by losing my hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of business over this matter.”

Blank looks all around until the cashier says, “the owner just walked in.”

“Thank God” I say. And to the owner, “It seems we’ve got a little problem here with an exchange.”

He looks at me and says, “Do you have a receipt?” Now, there’s smoke -not a lot- but definitely some smoke, starting to leak out of my ears.

“Receipt?!” I say. “You gotta be kidding! All I want to do is exchange these moldy bags of cheese. I’m not trying to rip you off, I just want two new bags of cheese!”

The storeowner’s remarkably calm and it just pisses me off all the more. He says, “that’s our policy, how do I know where you bought this cheese and how you stored it? Maybe you left it outside for a week.”

“Oh my God” I shout. “You’ve got to be fu*&ing kidding (smoke, much more smoke from the ears) “Why on earth would I be driving around town with two bags of moldering cheese? How could I possibly profit from a scam like this? What, I’m the guy making millions by doing exchanges on cheese, two bags at a time? Do you have any idea how much money I spend in this place?”

The more I become enraged the calmer the storeowner seems be getting. “I’m not calling you a liar,” he keeps saying and of course, that just makes me crazier.
Finally he says, “If your wife comes in and buys as much as you say she does, than she can come find me and if I see that her cart is full, I’ll exchange one of the bags of cheese.”

I slam the two bags I’d been holding on the counter.

“Now you couldn’t get me to shop here for all the money in the world. You’re totally insane!” I shout as I head out to my car.

Back home I call the credit card company to see exactly how much we actually do spend at this store. A lot. Close to five grand a year. I begin writing a letter that’ll make this loser see just what a total moron he is, just what an insane person he is, and how he sacrificed five thousand dollars for two bags of rotten cheese. Fortunately, I have the presence of mind to forward the letter to my son who’s studying out east. He tells me it’s a great thing to be able to vent, but under no circumstances should I send the letter.

“You sound like a raving maniac” he says.

It’s true, I do. And what’s worse, I really like shopping at that store. Who’s the loser now?

Slow to anger, slow to pacify indeed.

Is that condition of mine,—slow to pacify—an indelible part of who I am, of how I must behave?

I don’t think it needs to be. I’d like to be like a number one once in awhile: slow to anger, quick to pacify, and so I slowly begin to think in a way that’s totally unique for me. I start to consider MY part in bringing about the situation.

The first thing I do is to develop a sense of empathy for the storeowner. Here’s my thought process:

  1. Though I totally disagree with his policy and his intransigent stance, I must also admit that I don’t know a damn thing about running a store.

  2. The storeowner told me that he’s got people trying to exchange things all day long. Maybe he’s telling the truth and maybe those exchanges cut into his profits. As I said, I don’t know anything about his overhead, what he pays his employees, or his profit margins.

  3. Perhaps, my getting insane in the middle of his store was not only bad for his business, it also painted me as… well, an insane person.

  4. Perhaps if I’d taken him aside and explained my situation in private, it would have been easier for him to overlook his exchange policy.

  5. It’s possible there are language and cultural considerations that I hadn’t thought about - especially as the smoke poured out of my ears.

  6. Finally, and most importantly, who the hell am I that this guy should make an exception for me? It then dawns on me that is was the affront to my ego that made me so angry. That is in fact, the opposite of what’s known as righteous indignation. There was nothing righteous about the way I blew up in that man’s store. I had been compelled, as I often am, by my unimaginative soul, and now it was time to be borne aloft by the very best of me, my - creative soul.

I called him and I apologized.

I didn’t cast any blame on him – or on myself for that matter. I simply reiterated one through six on the list above. I found the results astounding. Here’s what he said:

“You have no idea how happy this makes me. No one understands the kinds of pressure I’m under with people running into my store every minute to exchange things they didn’t even buy here. I would have gladly exchanged your cheese but it wouldn’t have been possible to do so in public. Please,” he said, “come back to my store, I’ll exchange the cheese, we’ll sit and have tea and some cake.”

I had been freed from the burden of my anger. I was happy because I was able to express myself and I was relieved that he was grateful. I can go back to shopping at that store again and best, I feel like a tiny tear in the fabric of my own, and possibly the world’s humanity, has been restored. I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like making pizza tonight.

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In addition to being a Grammy and Emmy nominated songwriter and composer, Peter Himmelman is a visual artist, writer and founder of Big Muse—an organization dedicated to...

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