I was fortunate enough to spend the weekend traveling with my wife, and saw many wondrous things. But now that I’m home, I find my mind wandering to two distinct events.
The first occurred in Galena, Illinois a town named for its historic lead mines and the ore found there. Ulysses S. Grant lived here for a short time, and there’s even a mine in his old home.
The downtown area has been turned into a tourist district, with all the shops one would expect: antiques, cheese and wine, odd gifts that light up and spin.
One of these shops was full of spices and oils. We wandered around a bit looking at the odd combination of things. The furniture was a mishmash of antiques, and near the check out was a strange bureau. It had a number of drawers and doors, and was clearly purpose-built for something particular. It might have been an ice chest or an elaborate liquor cabinet, so being who I am, asked the person behind the counter what it was.
She was confused. “What do you mean?” She asked.
“I’m just wondering what this cabinet was for. It’s interesting.”
“It’s just a cabinet.” She rolled her eyes at me and walked away, apparently annoyed that I wasn’t asking about the pouches of spice that were for sale.
I left the store.
I can appreciate that she was likely just an employee and was concerned with her job, and not the provenance of the store’s fixtures. But her disdain for my curiosity left me cold. It’s not that she didn’t know, it’s that she couldn’t understand how someone could wonder about something so unimportant.
I can’t actually know what her thought process was. Perhaps she was annoyed because it was busy and I was asking a non-essential question. Maybe there was something else going on that I missed entirely. But that moment stuck with me for awhile, and made me think about what it must be like to be incurious.
After getting back to Chicago, my wife and I decided to get some late-night provisions in celebration of the glorious weekend we just had. We’re adults; we get to do that.
The only place open at late hours is a grocery store that we avoid. The lines are long and slow, and it’s painfully obvious that the staff hate working there. But, snacks must be had.
As we entered the checkout, we noticed a bag of Dorito’s Roulette. I had encountered these in New Zealand a couple of months ago, and it’s a fun idea: every fifth chip is super hot and spicy. You are playing “Dorito’s Roulette” every time you take a chip from the bag. We had fun with them on the bus, and we picked up a bag for more fun.
As we were checking out, the unusually friendly cashier said “Oh, these look like fun. I’d like to try them.” I explained that they were fun, and that we had tried them in New Zealand.
She said, “Wow, New Zealand. That’s one of those places you need a passport for, right?”
I was a bit taken aback, but only for a second. I knew I had found one of the lucky 10,000.
In an all too brief conversation, I told her that it was a wonderful place, but very far away. Traveling there took a long time, and that when you arrived, you had missed a whole day. Her response took me aback once more.
“What language do they speak there?”
I explained that they spoke English… and then added that some also spoke Maori. As we left, I heard her telling her coworkers that we had just been to New Zealand, as though she had just had some minor celebrities come through her line.
But that wasn’t the point. This wasn’t about us, it was about her. Somehow, in her life, she had heard of New Zealand but never learned anything about it. For someone like me, this seems hard to believe, but rather than wonder how she could have missed the Lord of the Rings movies, I realized that whatever her life was full of, it wasn’t full of the chance to travel to far off lands.
And yet, she was curious. She wanted to know more. She understood the wonder of visiting foreign countries, and I hope our short exchange somehow gave her the hope that she will also be able to visit someplace that needs a passport.
The two clerks, one in a posh tourist town and the other in a rundown grocery store, demonstrated polar opposites of curiosity. And the latter, more important encounter demonstrated the idea that having a pride in your knowledge is merely a responsibility to share it wisely. If someone doesn’t know something you consider obvious, don’t shut them down. Honor their curiosity. Share your experiences. Encourage them to keep asking questions.
A cabinet is never just a cabinet.