We were on a quest for the perfect loveseat, my daughter and I. Clean enough that you don’t mind touching skin to upholstery and just enough wear so a little spilled tea won’t break your heart. Kate and I were clear on our priorities, and, as luck would have it — or was it something more intentional? — we found a treasure at our favorite Fallbrook thrift store, a nice church-sponsored place that seeks charity and justice, values we share. Well, minus the dogma. And the misogyny. We’re also passionately opposed to that celibacy thing.
Nonetheless, our quest was fulfilled — until we stumbled into one of those moments that stay with you a lifetime, a moment that surely is meant to instruct, but still we struggle to define the lesson.
“You have to write about it,” Kate said.
But how do I write about something that made my daughter weep? Oh, a part of me wants to, but is it the right part, the part that hopes to leave the path we travel a little sweeter smelling than we find it or the part that is not yet ready to let go the rage at injustice?
When we first moved to Fallbrook the Friendly Village, Kate and I would cheer every time we passed a black person in town — our little two fan wave, tempered by seatbelts but with unfettered enthusiasm for a more diverse team — it was that rare. And Fallbrook was that hostile to the occasional African-American military family who blundered into town and to the Latino laborers who kept the place running, while white folk spouted such grocery line chatter as, “Well, you know I’m not a racist, but …” And that’s just it: That was 20-some years ago, and we like to think Fallbrook has become more enlightened.
Yes, that’s what we like to think, and maybe it has. But, as we approached the thrift store counter to purchase our treasure of a loveseat, we stumbled on a throwback, a troglodyte freshly unearthed from his subterranean anachronism of bigotry and igno—
Oops. That would be the enraged part of me. Let me try that again.
As we stood in line to buy the loveseat, the white, middle-aged gentleman behind the counter, whose mission is “to grow spiritually by offering person-to-person service to those who are needy and suffering,” was telling the Spanish-speaking woman before him that what she had was a blouse and a sweater, not two blouses. The woman’s daughters explained that both items were on the blouse rack.
“I don’t care where you found it,” the white, middle-aged gentleman said in a voice with slightly elevated volume — say, on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 being conversation level, he was at a 6. “This one’s a sweater, not a blouse,” and he poked at the thing I’d have called neither a blouse nor a sweater, but, rather, a shirt. But I live in sweats and blue jeans, so what do I know. Not much, except that the white, middle-aged gentleman then picked up the subject garment, waved it in front of the woman and said, “Suéter, not blusa. See?” and the woman’s shoulders turned inward as her head bowed. “Sué–ter!” he said at about volume 7.
I looked into my dear one’s eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Sweetie, but I cannot buy anything here,” and she agreed as we turned to go.
But then the white, middle-aged gentleman thrust the thing into the woman’s face, repeating, “Sué–ter! Sué–ter! Sué–ter!”
She shrank with each thrust of the shirt, farther into that place of oppression women know so well, particularly women of color. Oh, she had tried — and her daughters had tried — to gently disagree with the white, middle-aged gentleman, but this is what their efforts had wrought: the verbal assault of a privileged white male belittling those he would serve as they attempted a trivial purchase gone utterly wrong — and growing more intensely so. So utterly wrong and so increasingly intense, that I could not be still.
“Excuse me,” I said to the white, middle-aged gentleman, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but you are behaving so dishonorably.”
“To who?” he asked as though he didn’t know but delivered at maybe a 7.5, which suggested he did.
Kate, my dear one, responded with, “To humanity.”
I would have taken a moment to savor the blended pride and sorrow, but for the ensuing assault now aimed at us, the clincher being, “Who are you?” spewed at about volume 8. “You’re not my priest!”
“No, but you need one,” I retorted, devoid of charity. “This is a Christian business. If there is a god, god is love. But you are serving hate,” which sent him into another tirade and escorted Kate and me right out the door.
We found our way to the car. Kate wept at the grotesquery of prejudice and privilege. I sat stunned by the man’s wrath and my idiocy. When the woman and her daughters emerged from the store, I apologized for further embarrassing them. The woman let me hug her, and her daughters said they are treated like that pretty regularly in Fallbrook the Friendly Village.
We parted ways, and I wondered if I had done the right thing, while Kate wondered at humankind: “I don’t care what people think and feel about certain races, sexual orientations, political alignments — but be human to your fellow humans!”
Now, we continue our quest for the perfect loveseat. We hope our paths cross charity and justice. And we remain uncertain what lesson is to be learned from our moment with the white, middle-aged gentleman who is so certain of the difference between a blusa and a suéter.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at email@example.com.