Day 14. U.S. troops four miles from Baghdad.
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, so I put on my coat and my orange button that has a photograph of a very sweet looking 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 slowly about in a kind of pudding atmosphere, commingling with cute, well-heeled West Village customers, illuminated by the very brightest fluorescent lights.
One day last summer, on the hottest day of the summer last year the store’s air conditioning was broken and a black man stocking the shelves and dripping with sweat said to me, “They’ve gone and put me back on the plantation.”
I found my two boxes of Breathe Right strips and was waiting patiently in line behind one other customer when a man approached, looking at me, muttering under his breath and shaking his head. He was a light-skinned black man, somewhere in his early forties, dressed in a security guard uniform and carrying a packet of cookies. As he approached me muttering with frustration I realized this: a moment ago he had seen that there was no line for the register and so had chosen to punch out for his break, then rush to the aisle for his cookies, then rush to the cashier who would be able to ring him up immediately thus allowing him to utilize every moment of his fifteen-minute break as fully as he could. But now there were two people waiting in line!
I had worked in a supermarket for two years in high school and so I knew the ins and outs of fifteen-minute breaks and the rules requiring you to punch out before purchasing your snack and the rules requiring you to wait in line like a regular customer, and so on and so forth. I had been there. I understood the man’s dilemma. And now, feeling magnanimous and in touch with my past, I was prepared to let him cut in front of me if he asked. “Sure, man. Go ahead.”
As he approached me, however, I saw that his security guard uniform was not, in fact, a security guard uniform at all, and that furthermore he was not associated with Duane Reade in any official capacity.
He was a customer like me and he took his place behind me with his packet of cookies and instead of asking to cut in front, he said in a loud voice, to no one in particular, but as if he were resolving a discussion with someone, “Fuck Saddam! And fuck Osama!” And then to clarify who his conversation partner was he said for the whole store to hear, “Yeah, I see that bullshit on your button.”
It was my turn to be rung up. The cashier was Caribbean and very short and she scanned my Breathe Right strips in a tired way.
“We’re going to kill that motherfucker tonight,” the man said to me. “Hell, yeah!” He was gleeful and he was egging me on. I could tell he was just getting started and that he was preparing to ride me throughout my entire transaction with the cashier, and throughout my entire time in the store. My emasculation was unfolding before my eyes. I was to become the flushed white man that you come upon sometimes in a subway car, say, being cursed by a person of color, a far away look 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 and to answer the man’s charges as put forth. “Just because I’m against the war doesn’t mean I’m for Saddam,” I thought to say. But it had a defiantless tone and it reeked of reasoning and good-will and inclusiveness and thus defeatism. My goal was not to win a political argument, but to win 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. You like that bullshit, huh?” I looked him in the eye and punctuated the words. I wanted to make it clear to him I wasn’t cowed. He stared back at me with a crazed incredulity. Looking at him up close I suddenly realized that there was a very good chance that he wasn’t fully in his right mind. Perhaps his irritation stemmed from the fact that he had family in the armed services. I was antagonizing a man who was unstable and whose very thin emotional line had just been crossed.
The cashier said, “$27.26.” My hand shook as I swiped my debit card.
“May I have cash back?”
“Hell, yeah, I like it,” the man said. “It’s going to be just like when Qaddafi was talking all that shit.”
I was slightly impressed that he had brought up Qaddafi. I wasn’t quite sure what his point was, other than bravado, but my mind raced to find a comeback. I thought briefly about Qaddafi’s daughter being killed and that perhaps I could somehow tie that into the overall oppression of black men. I wanted to make it personal, but I wasn’t positive 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 piss him off. He could accuse me of being racist and then I’d be stuck and everyone in the store would hate me. I wanted to make him look foolish, but I was grasping and I knew it.
The cashier said, “We don’t give cash back.” I punched in my pin number.
“And then Ronald Reagan put a shotgun to Qaddafi‚s head,” the man continued contemptuously, “and you don’t hear no more shit out of him, do you? Do you?”
That was my in. It wasn’t a great in, but it was the only one I was likely to get.
“You like Reagan, huh?” I said as sneeringly as I could. He didn’t respond.
I snickered and glanced at the cashier with an inclusive look that said “Can you believe a black man is actually defending Ronald Reagan?” She looked back at me like she had no idea what the conversation was about and could care less.
I pushed further. “Reagan did right by you, huh? He took care of you?” I said it loud enough so that the tough black guy would have to admit to the entire Duane Reade that he was indeed a supporter of Ronal Reagan.
His response was sudden and unequivocal: “Fuck Reagan! And fuck Bush!”
I had nowhere to go now. We were in agreement. The cashier put my Breathe Rights in a bag.
“I don’t need a bag,” I said.
“I voted. My mother asked me what I was doing. I tore that piece of paper up. Fuck all them motherfuckers.”
There was conviction there and I respected it. But conviction about what? For someone coming into the store now it would appear to them that I was the one being chastised for being right wing and pro-war. I wanted to say something back to him, but I didn’t even know what the argument was. And now my transaction was over. I thanked the cashier who was looking at me as if I was a fool who had just managed to disrupt the equilibrium of the store, and I put the Breathe Rights in my coat pocket and walked out.
On the street I could still hear him going. I took my time unlocking my bicycle because I decided I had to have the last word with him. He stood in the doorway of the Duane Reade chatting up the Pakistani security guard and someone else, all of them chuckling a bit. At my expense, no doubt. I was pissed and ready for him. He exited, glanced at me and then walked up the street unwrapping his packet of cookies. I rode my bicycle slowly past him on the sidewalk, ready to taunt, but not knowing quite where to begin.
“They all suck,” he said to me as I passed.
Yeah, man, they all suck. But I didn’t want to agree. I said nothing and rode off.