Howareya

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Hey, how ya doin’!

How are ya!

How are YOU!

It’s not really a question. My neighbor says Heyhowyadoin every time he sees me. The man washing his car in his driveway says Howareya whenever I walk by. The cashier at the convenience store says HowareYOU.

How do we answer this nonquestion? Like most people, I say Finehowareyou or just nod and smile. Nobody seems to feel they have time to give a real answer or that it’s even expected. But really, how long would it take?

Once a month or so, I get fed up with the throwaway question at the cash register. Instead of grabbing my change and making room for the next person in line, I take two seconds and make eye contact. I have to wait for the cashier to look at me. Then I say, “I’m fine. And how are YOU today?” And I wait. They always say something back, usually Goodthankyouforasking. Then I tell them to Haveaniceday and leave because, you know, there are people in line.

The other day, something different happened. A short woman with salt and pepper hair and a black uniform stood in line before me at the coffee counter. She asked How I was. Fine, I said, and waited as she ordered iced tea and paid for her seeded sesame bagel. I paid for my decaf hazelnut coffee refill to take back to the upstairs café, where four other women wrote on laptops as we do every Thursday morning, a hedge against the loneliness of writing at home. The short woman was in front of me again, at the row of coffee urns. She made deliberate eye contact and asked me again, How are you? Very well, thank you, I responded. How are you today? She mumbled Oh and some other words I couldn’t make out. Not good, I said? She told me she had a pinched nerve. I said I hoped she felt better. It’s not fun, she sighed. I told her to take care, and she said you too. Then she went back to work at the prepared food and beer checkout.

All that took maybe 60 seconds out of my day but it added something important to me: connection to a real human being. Not that I think the neighbors or the cashiers aren’t real. Just that it’s rare to really think about what we’re saying. And when we do, what happens? We see someone. We remember them. I wrote this encounter down in my notebook. The short supermarket cashier with the salt and pepper hair is now in your mind too. Maybe you have a pinched nerve. Maybe your day is not so fine. Or maybe it is, and you could spread a little fineness with a smile, a sincere question, an eye lock. Just for a minute today. Imagine what could happen.

Do you ever answer truthfully when someone says Howareya? Tell me about it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, a mother-daughter novel about foster care and obsessive love.

The winner of this month’s drawing is Gary Bennett. He will receive a copy of The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. Congratulations, Gary and thanks for your comment last month.

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