Lost and Found: Stories from New York

Mister Beller’s Neighborhood, 2009


It was 9 PM and I was out of Breathe Right strips. If I don't have Breathe Right strips I can't sleep soundly because I have a deviated septum. So I put on my brown coat and my orange button that has a photograph of a very sweet little Iraqi girl and the words, "Stop the War on Iraq," and I rode my bicycle to Duane Reade, located on Sixth Avenue between Twelfth and Thirteenth Street.

All Duane Reades are unhappy stores and this one is no exception. It is filled with unhappy employees moving around in a kind of pudding atmosphere, commingling with cute, well-heeled West Village customers, and illuminated by the brightest fluorescent lights. On the hottest day of the year last summer the store's air conditioning happened to be broken, and a young black man, who was stocking shelves and dripping with sweat, said to me, "They've gone and put me back on the plantation."

I selected two boxes of Breathe Right strips and took my place in line behind one other customer. Almost immediately a man approached. He was looking at me intently, muttering under his breath, and shaking his head with displeasure. He was a light-skinned black man, somewhere in his early forties, and dressed in a security guard uniform. In his hand was a packet of cookies. As he rapidly walked towards me I realized this: just a moment ago he had seen that there was no line at the register and so had decided to take the opportunity to punch out for his break, rush as fast as he could to the cookie aisle for his cookies, then rush back to the cashier who would be able to ring him up instantly, thus allowing him to utilize every minute of his fifteen-minute break.

But now here were two people waiting in line.

I had bagged groceries in a supermarket for two years when I was in high school and so I knew all about those totalitarian rules requiring you to punch out before purchasing your snack, and the rules requiring you to wait patiently in line like a regular customer, and so on and so forth. On one occasion my boss had apprehended me arriving from my break three minutes late and put me to work cleaning behind the garbage compactor. So I understood the nature of this man's dilemma. And feeling magnanimous and in touch with my past, I was prepared to let him cut in front of me if he were to ask. "Sure,” I would say. “Go ahead, man."

As he neared me, however, I saw that his security guard uniform was not, in fact, a security guard uniform at all, and that he did not appear to be associated with Duane Reade in any official capacity whatsoever. He was a regular customer like me. And furthermore, rather than ask if he could cut in front, he stood in line behind me and said in a loud voice, as if he were resolving a discussion with someone sitting in another room, "Fuck Saddam! And fuck Osama!" And then to clarify who exactly his conversation partner was, he said, in that same loud voice, "Yeah, I see that bullshit on your button."

It was my turn to be rung up. The cashier, who was very short and looked like she might be Caribbean, scanned my Breathe Right strips with exhaustion.

"We're going to kill that motherfucker tonight," the man continued behind me. "Hell yeah!"

I could tell he was just getting started and that he was preparing to gleefully egg me on for the remainder of my time in the store. My emasculation was unfolding before me. I was on the verge of becoming the flushed white man that you sometimes see in a subway car being cursed by a person of color, a faraway gaze in the white man's eyes, a reconciliatory smile playing at his lips. "I am friend to all," the smile seems to say, "even you who now attack me."

I resolved not to be a victim. Especially since I’m not just a white man but also a half Iranian man with a stake in what happens in the Middle East. And so I decided to answer the man's charges as put forth. "Just because I'm against the war doesn't mean I support Saddam," I considered saying. But this had a defiantless tone and reeked of reasoning and goodwill and inclusiveness, and therefore defeatism. My goal was not to win a political argument but a physical one. I decided to choose a different approach.

"You like that shit, huh?" I said to him contemptuously. "You like the fact that America’s running all around the world killing people? And you're here celebrating." I looked him in the eye and punctuated my words. I wanted to make it clear I wasn't cowed. He stared back at me with a crazed incredulity. Looking at him closely I realized that there was a very good chance the man wasn't in his right mind. There was also a possibility that his irritation with my button stemmed from the fact that he had family in the armed services. I suddenly feared that I had antagonized a man who was unstable and whose very thin emotional line had just been crossed.

The cashier said, "$27.26."

My hand trembled as I swiped my debit card. "May I have cash back?" I asked.

"Hell, yeah, I like it!" the man rejoined. "It's going to be just like when Qaddafi was talking all that shit."

I was impressed that he had brought up Qaddafi. It seemed politically astute. I wasn't quite sure what his point was but my mind raced to find a comeback. I thought briefly about the fact that Qaddafi's daughter had been killed in a U.S. bombing raid and that perhaps I could somehow equate her murder with the overall oppression of black men in the United States. I wanted to make it personal. But I wasn't entirely certain this man was black. Maybe he was Puerto Rican. If he was Puerto Rican I could talk about the bombing of Vieques. But if he wasn't Puerto Rican I might enrage him by presuming that he was. He would accuse me of making racist, uninformed assumptions. And he’d be right. And then I'd be stuck and everyone in the store would hate me. Including the Caribbean cashier… who might not be Caribbean. 

The cashier said, "We don't give cash back."

©2009 Excerpted by permission of Mister Beller’s Neighborhood

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