Last week I was in my vet’s lobby with one of my dogs, waiting to check out, when I overhead a conversation behind me. “Of course you don’t like it here, but stop your complaining! We need to stay put for now.” An older woman, maybe in her mid-70s, was talking to her cat, which was meowing loudly from inside its plastic carrier. Hanging from the side of the carrier was an IV bag, and its tube snaked through a side vent into the carrier—and, presumably, the cat.
Sprinkles, it turns out, was a well-fed orange tabby who had lived almost all of her 18 years indoors. She’d been healthy her whole life but a few weeks ago started with a cough that sounded like a bark. Of course, I only knew this because the woman shared it freely with the handful of people—including me—in the waiting room. At that moment, from within the depths of its cage, as if for dramatic emphasis, the creature emitted a sharp cough, which sounded ironically like a bark, given that it came from a cat. At that, the dog sitting at my feet snapped to attention and gave a short bark of his own, as if to remind all of us what a bark from an actual dog sounds like.
The woman prattled on, to no one in particular but at the same time to everyone. She talked more about the cat’s bark, about other pets in the waiting room, about the arrival at last of the spring sunshine. If you caught her eye, she seemed to address you directly; but if you didn’t answer, she looked elsewhere for a more sympathetic ear.
As a rule, I tend to avoid drive-by conversations—I find the public nature of them embarrassing. There is nothing more excruciating for me than small talk in, say, a grocery produce aisle—and this was no exception, particularly as she asked pointed questions (“What he in for? Is he sick, too?”), which I found irritating.
So the woman was left to ply others. Mostly, she talked to the cat. I turned away and tried to ignore her.
Until I couldn’t. The door opened and a man with another cat in a carrier entered. He set down the carrier with its door facing the woman, and she peered inside: “Oh another little one!” the woman gushed over the small body pressed again the back of the cage. “And he’s so black! What’s his name… Shadow? Uncle Tom? Spooky? Sambo?” she guessed.
I whipped around, nearly floored. The black cat’s owner looked at the woman briefly, then moved to take a seat at the opposite end of the room. She didn’t wait for an answer, and he didn’t provide one; she began yawping about something else. I wasn’t really sure he had heard her.
Then again, I wasn’t really sure I had heard her, either. In those few moments after the comment, I was too stunned to know quite how to react, other than with disbelief: Did she really just say that? Would she actually have called out a few racial slurs as appropriate names for a black cat?
What really struck me was the thoughtlessness of the comment, the utter lack of intent. In a way, her oblivion suggested a lack of awareness that seemed more unsettling than if she had, for example, attempted an off joke. She lacked empathy, but more than that, she was completely insensate. She was there—breathing, talking, and in full flesh and blood—but she was nonetheless unconscious. And it was disturbing.
There was something completely absurd about the situation—and the woman herself: She treated an ill cat with enough regard to rehydrate it with an IV drip, but did not extend as much sensitivity to actual, you know, people.
Later, I wondered whether what I had witnessed was less one woman’s prejudgments than a glimpse into how so many others like her might view the world—where, say, a black man running for the presidency is first and foremost judged by the color of his skin, and only then on merit, or where his female opponent is judged first as a woman.
It then occurred to me that perhaps we are, all of us, limited in our ability to judge because of our own inherent prejudices. After all, “to be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of the ignorant,” wrote Amos Alcott.
Are we, like the woman in the vet’s office, hostage to our own limitations? And can we ever transcend them?
Only if we have the capacity to doubt ourselves, I think.