She said hi but I was on minute-28 of an elliptical workout at the Y so I was red-faced and could barely breathe. It was pretty obvious I wasn't going to be good for a conversation that included formed words and thoughts. I guess she forgot her ear buds and was bored and wanted to talk so she looked the other way and started a fairly loud conversation with the person to her left. I kept trying to breathe - and since I forgot my ear buds, too - I couldn't help but eavesdrop.
The key revelation I picked up was that she had asked for two tea bags at a coffee shop that afternoon and was charged $2.25 each, which somewhat angered her and led to a sharp exchange with the waitress that ended with her telling the waitress, "I'm drinking your tip."
I've always thought it was unfair to punish a waiter or waitress when a dining problem is clearly outside of his or her control. Like prices posted on the menu. Or a grease fire in the kitchen. And all that begs the question of why she was ordering tea in a coffee shop in the first place.
But what most caught my attention was that she was at least the fifth person I had heard in a 24-hour time frame that was complaining about how high prices are. If you've checked costs on homes and many commodities you already know it's a buyer's market out there. If you've got some cash there's an awful lot you can buy right now. If you don't have any cash, well, yes, then everything is pretty expensive!
What I think I was overhearing was actually a micro example of a fundamental psychological shift occurring on the macro level in America. We've always complained about prices - except when bragging about how much we paid for something - but I think now people really mean it.
Could it be that we are shifting from being consumers to conservers again? A lot of pundits will say it's about time. That sounds as good and right as saying you're only going to help people who can't afford their homes because of bad luck rather than those who can't afford their homes because they were greedy. But many economists will remind us that the Great Depression was caused in large measure because people stopped spending and investing. Consumer spending does create the magical process of turning a company's inventory or services into cash, which is usually a requisite for staying in business.
But that doesn't mean we haven't been incredibly greedy and overspent on the aggregate - and as individuals. This seeming personal course correction - possibly nothing more than a temporary dip in our mad spending ways - is undoubtedly overdue but we shouldn't be naive that there won't be more corporate casualties. Whatever you think of companies - unfair, unfeeling, unscrupulous or anything else unflattering - they are entities that provide jobs.
So what's the takeaway in all this for me? First of all, I'm not going to forget my ear buds again. And secondly, I'm limiting myself to one tea bag!