Lousy customer service at a hardware store inspires my solution.
I wait for my husband to join me inside the hardware store. He’s returned to the car for his phone. We need our phones, because I tend to wander off while shopping. That, combined with my absent-mindedness, presents potential for trouble. Once, not paying attention, I’d almost stuck my arthritic black hand into the back pocket of a short round white guy, mistaking him for Ben, the short round white guy I’m married to.
The store’s entry is more spacious than I’d expect, almost as big as a cineplex lobby. It’s fitting they’ve set up a section of munchies right by the door, like a concession stand. For a movie fan/hardware nerd like me, this has just become an ideal entertainment venue. I grab myself a bag of Cheetos.
There are two cashiers in sight, one of them is either asleep or in a coma. The other, a middle-aged man, is engrossed in a magazine, but sees me through the eyes in the back of his head. He scans the Cheeto bag and turns pages simultaneously. “Dollar seventy-three,” he says to his magazine, then shoves the cash into the drawer. “Want your receipt?” he asks the cash register.
On behalf of the register, I say, “No thanks.”
I forgive this level of surliness in teenaged clerks. They’ve earned the right to a bad attitude, given the hormones wreaking havoc in their systems. But from a man old enough to shoulder a mortgage, I’m accustomed to some attention, even if only a sexist, Have a good day, little lady. The cashier’s hostility puts me on edge.
I shake off the mood. Lousy service will not be allowed to ruin my Tuesday with Ben. After you’ve been married a long time, you have to treat every outing like a date. Hold hands, sing show tunes, talk in married-people code. When he comes in, I offer hubby a Cheeto.
“No thanks,” he says. “I’m going for the free popcorn over here.”
They have free popcorn? I love this place. After filling up at the popcorn station, we meander to housewares, on the hunt for picture hooks. No hooks in sight, but they do have a spiffy pop-open laundry hamper, which I snatch up.
We examine a red wagon and some bicycle tires. Total browsing satisfaction awaits over in automotive, plumbing, and possibly electrical supplies. Nothing beats a Cheeto-crunching tour of electrical —
“Hello?” A sales associate has materialized at the end of a long aisle. Mr. Coma. All stretched out and vertical, he’s very tall, but awkward. He must have had a growth spurt in his teens that he never got used to. He creeps forward a step or two. Reluctant, like he’s sneaking up on himself. I sense stalker vibrations. Has he been following us? “Hello?”
All too frequently, that same greeting had floated my way across a tony department store. The scenario had played out with eerie consistency. First, I’d get stalker shivers, then an apparition would appear in my peripheral vision, followed by the realization that said apparition had haunted my route from lingerie to jewelry to shoes. “Hello?” The unspoken questions trailing like cigar smoke: Are you lost? You didn’t use our restroom, did you? May I direct you back to the ghetto? After surveilling too many black customers, the tony department store had found itself on the losing end of a civil rights lawsuit.
Maybe Mr. Coma is talking to someone else. I check behind me. A matching white couple is wandering around the pet supplies section. Ben and I are the only customers facing the associate. I refuse to acknowledge the hello.
Ben says, “Hi, we’re looking for hooks.”
“Third aisle over, on your left.”
I spot them immediately, exactly what I need. I admire any employee who knows his inventory. Triumphant and grateful, I wave at Mr. Coma, who’s reappeared, peeking from behind a row of shelves. “Perfect. Thank you.”
To the left of me, my husband also says, “Thanks.”
Mr. Coma looks to my left. “You’re welcome.”
I crush the Cheeto I’m about to pop in my mouth, yellow paste bleeding all over my fingers. There’s nothing more infuriating than wasting a peace offering on an enemy who ignores your existence. After smearing the Cheeto paste on the inside of my jeans pocket, I hurl the crumpled bag into a trash can.
We circle around to the paint section, pick up a bottle of mineral oil, and then head for checkout, where the magazine-reading cashier is still engrossed. As Ben drops the first item onto the counter, the cashier leaps to attention and beams. “Morning, sir. Find everything you need?”
Asshole. My face hardens into battle mode, but an explosion will blindside Ben, whose good cheer tells me he’s oblivious to this war. It will be better for our marriage to stay calm for now and tell him my story after we get home.
Our loot disappears into a plastic sack. Hating the plastic, hating the cashier, I remove our loot, dropping the bag like a dirty diaper. “You can keep your bag.”
Re-absorbed in his magazine, the cashier snatches the plastic off the counter, wads it up, and jams it into the trash. The eyes in the back of his head glare at me.
Screw marital harmony.
I unsheathe my Negress spear, raise it overhead, and prepare to plunge it through the cashier’s heart. I am stopped mid-stab by an epiphany.
Living as a black woman just doesn’t work for me any more. Every morning, I wake up trapped in a relentless slog. Half the time suppressing a low-grade dread coiled at the base of my brain stem. The other half suppressing the urge to scream. Black comes without vacation days. No weekends off. No hope of retirement. I quit.
I will stop being black.
Content with my non-violent solution (wouldn’t Dr. King be proud of me?), I sheathe my spear. We gather our treasures and leave the store. Ben opens the car door for me. “There you go, darlin’.” Our married people date is saved.
I will stop being black.
On the drive home, I flesh out my plan. Strangers will need a warning, since they’ll have no way of knowing about my change in status. Hmm … something to prevent unfortunate interactions based on outdated information.
Introducing The Race Card. I’ll print up customized notes to be distributed as follows:
Dear white cashier: It’s okay to make eye contact. I’m not black.
Dear white sales associate: It’s okay to not follow me around the store. I’m not black.
Dear white neighbor: It’s okay to skip asking me if I live around here. I’m not black.
Dear white restaurant hostess: It’s okay to seat me near the front door instead of the kitchen door. I’m not black.
Dear white contractor: It’s okay to repair my stoop. I’m not black.
Dear white traffic cop: It’s okay to forgo the speeding ticket for five miles over. I’m not black.
Dear white conference attendee: It’s okay to sit beside me. I’m not black.
Dear white church-goer: It’s okay to stop peeking. I’m not black.
Dear white funny guy: It’s okay to say you did mean it that way. I’m not black.
Dear white ally: It’s okay to admit that all your friends are white. I’m not black.
Dear white girlfriend: Its okay to love your own hair. I’m not black.
And for occasions not otherwise specified, the general purpose race card. Dear white citizen: It’s okay to treat me like a run-of-the-mill Cheeto-lovin’ earthling. I’m not black.
Dawn Downey writes essays about her journey through everyday life. DawnDowney.com