With advancing maturity one may lose the ability to sleep through the night. On such occasions I often wandered to the local Waffle House for a cup of coffee until sleep could catch up. On one such occasion I found myself at the Waffle House at 2:00 in the morning. By this ungodly hour most of the party-goers, drunks, and students in this small college town had retired, and I was alone with the cook. Sitting at the counter in the middle of the restaurant, I read my book to pass the time.
Through a career that required me to communicate with, understand, and guide other persons, I was deeply committed to phenomenology as the cleanest way to read and understand human behavior. A key notion of this orientation is that “All behavior is strictly determined by the perceptual field of the behaving organism.” Such a straightforward statement makes each individual fully responsible every moment for his or her own behavior. Likewise it provides a roadmap to understand other people. It explains some of the most interesting and perverse aspects of human existence, and to a large extent helps us understand ourselves as complex, creative, and thoroughly idiotic creatures.
Most folks carry around large chunks of their perceptual field with them at all times. These are the person’s life experiences that include home, family, friends, work, play, church, and related individual notions. These ideas become ones more or less stable identity, a picture of oneself. They are often broadly shared with others who have had similar personal experiences, making it easy to communicate.
At the same time, these personal identities are continually interacting with an external environment, whose influences may enhance or inhibit one’s personal strivings. Distractions while driving come readily to mind. On one occasion a carload of college girls with windows rolled up entered a busy city intersection. They were blind to the flashing lights and blaring siren of a fire truck that soon mauled their car. Death and severe injury was the result of their preoccupation with each other to the exclusion of their dangerous environment. Their perceptual fields were blind to their surroundings.
Armed with the belief that others can be read directly, without convoluted and devious interpretations, I sat reading my book in the Waffle House. After ten minutes of complete tranquility, I noticed some shuffling behind me near the entrance. With my back to the door, I was unaware of all the details that must have been visibly apparent. A woman in her mid to late 20s came through the door carrying a small bundle. She paused briefly after entering, in an apparent attempt to decide where to sit. Every seat in the restaurant was available, except the one I was warming. I expected her to choose one of the five or six booths on either end of the building, where most single women choose to sit. To my surprise, she crawled onto the stool next to me at the counter. She placed her bundle on the empty stool next to her, and glanced quickly at me a time or two. For whatever reason, Miss Muffett had planted her tuffett on the stool next to mine.
In my experience, for any woman to sit next to a strange man in a public restaurant, particularly when he is the only other customer in the building is unusual. There are certainly women in their right minds who would do so, but she didn’t appear to be this kind of woman. Because of the startling nature of her choice, I waited for any other indication of unusual behavior to appear. She was welcome to sit there as long as she liked, and as I was reading my book, I decided to continue reading in silence, a form of behavioral inertia. I did not acknowledge her verbally, although I may have glanced toward her a time or two.
After only a few moments, she broke the silence.
“Will you marry me?” she asked.
This, of course, was a shocking opening remark, as I had never seen the woman before, and I was somewhat at a loss for words. Her first two choices, to sit next to a perfect stranger, and her second choice, to propose marriage as her first statement to a stranger, seemed to short circuit all of the usual preliminaries. I endeavored to apply my very best perceptual notions about what, exactly, was going on in her mind. The picture was a strange one, and required some heavy-handed decoding.
In fact, she had made a third choice, which was evident in retrospect. She had chosen to enter the Waffle House, the only public place where anyone was awake at this ungodly hour of the night. She might have remained on the streets wandering around until dawn, but she chose not to do so. She chose to be with people, so she entered the Waffle House, a choice that would be made by most rational and normally functioning persons. She must have had some confidence in other people by choosing to be with them, rather than on the street.
Marriage, on the other hand, is a wild proposal with a complete stranger. She must hold a picture of marriage in some esteem, as it is uppermost in her mind, and indeed is the first idea she shares. She might be a traditional girl, seeking that long-enduring, blissful relationship, or she could be a street waif who has experienced everything except marriage, and her idealized notion of marriage could be the only thing she has yet to undertake. She just hasn’t found the right guy, and I was the guy of the moment. In her haste, she simply passed over ‘hello’, the first date, the first kiss, embracing, infatuation, engagement, setting a date, and making detailed plans for the wedding. The timing was perplexing, as she jumped instantly from sitting next to me to happily ever after. Her perception clearly put herself much further along in our relationship than my view of this same relationship.
In fact, it was so bizarre, I was tempted to believe it a campus prank, or a field exercise in Shocking Behavior 101. The assignment included the following option: Dress like a street person and carry a bag of personal belongings on a stick over your shoulder. Make weird statements to unsuspecting strangers and record their responses verbatim. I deemed my suspicions to be entirely appropriate, and for a moment wondered if she had a miniature recorder in the small bundle beside her.
I was unsure just exactly how to respond. I didn’t want to offend her with an outright rejection, as this was my first ever proposal. I knew that I was the perfect stranger, probably ten years her senior, but I still viewed her offer as a fascinating piece of her perceptual field.
“This is so sudden, and so unexpected!” I replied. “Shouldn’t we get to know each other first?” I asked.
This was the second statement we shared. Fortunately, the cook was in the back room, probably sleeping, and was not around to react to the conversation between us. I really hated to put her off so abruptly, but I was constrained to respond in my traditional manner. After putting her off, I waited for her next statement on the edge of my stool. It arrived quite quickly, and revealed a little more about my new acquaintance.
“Can I go home with you?” she asked.
At this point, I had no idea exactly how close we were to marriage, but I was sure that my delaying tactic did not work. She was sitting on ready, and invited herself to my house. She had made only two short statements, a total of ten words, while I had replied only once. It appeared that I was digging myself into a deep hole. I was struggling valiantly to make appropriate responses, while she was coming up with the most bizarre comments quite effortlessly. Her perceptions were not sensitive to any social customs or traditions I was aware of. As they might say in the old west, she was shooting straight from the hip.
After these three statements, I was certain that she was looking for an enduring relationship (marriage), and a safe and reliable place to stay (my home). But I was not inclined to cart a strange woman home to my wife in the middle of the night. I had been down this road before on one occasion, hosting a lovely, but thoroughly psychotic woman home from a state hospital for a weekend. My wife accepted the opportunity as an educational experience, but the woman asked to return to the hospital a day early, owing to the lack of noise and less than stimulating environment we provided. After spending most of 24 years in a state hospital, the shock of living outside the institution was far more than she could endure. Our little asylum was not all it was cracked up to be.
Since taking Miss Muffett home was not an option, I resolved to take charge of the interaction, and help her find an appropriate perch.
“Can I help you find a place to stay?” I asked. “If you will tell me what is happening in your life, maybe I can be of some assistance.”
With that, we moved to a booth, where I pieced together her picture, revealed through discrete, often disconnected bits and pieces. It was necessary for me to fit the pieces together myself.
She had been living with her boyfriend for several months. On this occasion he had kicked her out of the house, and she had nowhere to go. She gathered up some belongings, and walked to the Waffle House a few blocks away. She may have had a discussion with her boyfriend about marriage, and he would have nothing to do with it. She may have decided that without marriage, her boyfriend was not such a fine deal, so she walks to the Waffle House and proposes immediately to the first guy she sees.
Such instant gratification is reminiscent of the open sexual revolution practiced by the younger set in the 70s. A graduate student confided in me that he often visited the Atlanta singles bar scene. His story was of meeting a willing young lady in the first three minutes, and fulfilling every adolescent male’s dream within the next few hours, knowing fully in advance exactly what was going to happen. Miss Muffett was dealing with marriage in this same context.
The rest of Miss Muffet’s story is history. She had spent at least one, and possibly several visits in the local mental ward for undisclosed disorders, but there was no room at the inn under the present circumstances. Returning to her boyfriend did not seem to be a viable option, as she had left in the middle of the night.
There was not yet a women’s shelter in town. Eventually we examined whether she had relatives or friends living in the area. With some reluctance she offered that her father, a university professor, still lived nearby, but she did not know the address or phone number. They had become estranged, and had not seen each other for several years, yet she allowed me to contact him for his possible assistance. I called the father about 3:00 in the morning, awakening him from a sound sleep. I explained the circumstances, and asked if he would consider housing his daughter until she could be relocated.
About 3:30 in the morning, her father arrived in his car at the Waffle House. After a brief conversation, I retrieved his daughter to join him in the parking lot. They exchanged a few words, she got into the car and they left.
One final picture appeared following this unusual sequence. To that time, I had encountered innumerable sons and daughters hooked on drugs or thoroughly psychotic, whose behavior destroys the fabric of a traditional family. A family’s long history of torment and anxiety from endless struggle is a distressing picture. There may be little correspondence between the family’s history of turmoil, and the perceptions of a son or daughter, who are simply doing their own things chemically or psychotically. In any event, I rejoined a father and a daughter for a moment in time, hoping that another opportunity might allow them to heal a fractured relationship.
Muffett Mold by Emmy Chen