The guard on the first floor of our building stopped me this morning in the lobby, as I was humming, about to board the elevator.
"You just reminded me of someone I used to work with years ago," he said. "An old, black man from the South who used to say whistling and humming was a sign of contentment. When you came in here humming like that, you reminded me of him."
I took this as a good omen - a compliment, even. First, conjuring the stereotype of a contented and wizened old black man unselfconsciously singing to himself, to describe me, will practically earn you a marriage proposal. Second, I did grow up in the South, and I was humming - and feeling content, no less - so it was nice, as it must always be, to feel seen.
But I couldn’t respond to this guy, couldn’t thank him, couldn’t do anything but vaguely smile, because all I could think about was his breath. His mouth had recently been soaked in either Listerine, or whiskey, or both, and not knowing whether he had admirable hygiene or was spectacularly drunk paralyzed me.
So I smiled - vaguely, like I said, the kind of smile you might expect of a great grandmother’s ghost in a dream - as I backed into the elevator car and waited for the doors to close between us, and I let it carry me to my floor in silence.