As I stood in line at the pharmacy a few weeks ago, I was thinking about what else I needed to buy while in the store. Let’s see: Q-Tips, Tylenol … maybe I’d check to see if any makeup was on sale.

My eyes grazed the magazines displayed near the counter. Whitney Houston, poor soul, was all over People. I could have flipped through Rachael Ray’s magazine, if only I’d had the good sense to pick it up before I got in line. I didn’t want to lose my place.

Then I noticed the guy who was being waited on. He looked a little rough from the back with his long hair and multitude of tattoos. But his voice was pleasant. All he wanted, he said, was a hypodermic needle.

The pharmacy technician shook her head and told him the size he wanted wasn’t available. He persisted, politely. That’s what his girlfriend had asked for, he said. Again the technician told him the size was unusually large, and not something the pharmacy carried.

It was at this point that my invisible antennae began to twitch. Hypodermic needle. Argument. Not a good combination.

I was especially alarmed since this pharmacy had been robbed of painkillers only a few weeks before. So had another one in Augusta. Plus one in Manchester.

I resisted the urge to flee before picking up my prescription.

The technician was now appealing to the pharmacist. She, in turn, was shaking her head and holding out her hands to demonstrate the monster size of the needle the customer was asking for. He shrugged, and took the standard-size hypodermic they offered him. Uh, no, they couldn’t give him two.

He walked calmly away, and I started breathing again.

I’m not usually so paranoid, but we are living in edgy times. Despite all the jolly talk we hear from the feds, many Americans are suffering financially. Safety nets are being threatened. Our world is unstable. The weather is weird and so are our politicians.

Some Americans respond to this societal stress by ignoring it all — playing video games and cocooning themselves with their big screen TVs. Others prepare for Armageddon by supplying themselves with “beans, bullets and Band-Aids.”

Still others turn to violence to get what they want. When that starts happening in Maine, we know this nation has a problem.

Recently, I was involved in a book group that discussed Abraham Verghese’s novel “Cutting for Stone.” The story centered on a mission hospital in Ethiopia, where the characters encountered death and disfigurement on a daily basis.

I wondered how many of us in the group had ever seen corpses, or even severely injured people. On the screen — perhaps thousands of times. But how about in real life?

I was with my mother when she died. But hooked up to machines as she was, truthfully, except for the quiet, there was no difference between the moment before she left and the moment after, other than in my own mind and heart.

As for injuries, my worst experience was at age 8, when I arrived home to find a blood-spattered hallway and bathroom. The neighbor assigned to catch me as I got off the bus — to tell me my mother and sister Maggie and Maggie’s nearly severed finger were on the way to the emergency room — was a few minutes too late.

I was traumatized, but, perhaps, not as much as I would have been had I seen the 4-year-old stick her hand into the blades of a manual lawn mower. (The finger was neatly reattached.)

I haven’t witnessed any murders, robberies or other crimes, though I might have. In college, in Rhode Island, I lived across from a cozy little pizzeria. One night my roommates and I were having a party, and one of our guests told me the shop owner was complaining about people parking in his lot. I went over to talk to him. The place was closed, but a light was still on, so I knocked on the back door. When it opened, there was Mario, holding a revolver up to my face. When he saw I wasn’t one of his mafioso buddies, he was all smiles.

In other words, I haven’t had much direct experience with violence. I’m grateful for that, but I’m not sure how long my luck can hold. Two young men were charged recently in two of the drugstore robberies, and they were former students of mine. My neighborhood pharmacy. Local kids. I don’t like where this story is going.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]


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