I’d dashed in about a half-hour before closing time. This little toy store in the Village, whose shelves cheerfully overflow with cute wooden toys in primary colors, funny stuffed monkeys and bright plastic puzzles. A friendly, crowded little place devoid of Gameboys and electronic pinging, the kind of place where you can reassure yourself you’re in the company of rational, progressive Europeans, and can therefore shop with ideological impunity.
I browsed my way to the back of the store, where I weighed the relative merits of the big plastic dinosaur versus the cinnamon bear hand puppet.
A teenage clerk sat behind the little counter, chewing gum as she read a children’s book. Ballerina dolls and airplanes dangled overhead; toy jewelry and miniature books lined the countertop. The young clerk could have been part of the toy display.
The doorbell buzzed.
The clerk didn’t move.
The bell sounded again. Two, three, four times in a row.
I checked out the clerk. She only had to lean forward slightly to buzz the door open, but instead just sat there, rigidly hunched over the storybook, chewing assiduously.
“That book can’t be that engrossing,” I thought. “I wonder if she’s hard of hearing.”
The buzzing stopped, replaced by a polite tapping on the door glass. “Hello?” a male voice sounded. “Can you open the door, please?”
On the sidewalk outside the door stood a handsome, impeccably-groomed man in his late thirties, toting one of those rich-looking brown leather briefcases you see in the specialty stores, and wearing a trenchcoat that probably cost more than I make in a month.
“Hey–can you let me in?” he repeated.
Despite this guy’s obviously stratospheric income bracket, I guessed that we did have one dilemma in common–an impending special occasion and no enthusiasm for noisy, battery-powered conventional toys. As the only customer in the store, I felt obliged to support my fellow deadline-beater. I looked at the clerk and started to say something, but the man at the door beat me to it.
“Aw, come on!” he complained, “You’re not letting me in because I’m black!”
The girl hunched even harder over her book; I think she would have jumped in and closed it around herself if she could have.
Trying to approximate that expression that relief pitchers level at batters with two men out and runner on third, I glared at the teenage clerk. She looked at me imploringly. “The last two times I let black guys in here, they robbed me!” she blurted.
I had no way of knowing whether or not that was true. I guessed it was an exaggeration–it’s more likely that two guys robbed her once. But she was physically shaking, so I did believe that somebody robbed her. Most likely not an investment banker.
I’m a writer. I spend a great deal of my time crossing out my first impulse, re-working every expression of thought before committing it to the public. It’s a very enjoyable and reassuring process. Nothing reaches other people till I’ve satisfied myself that it’s ready. But there is one drawback–I don’t get enough practice thinking on my feet.
I felt terrible for the man outside. But I knew I had no authority whatsoever to tell the terrified clerk what to do. I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I adopted an expression I hoped conveyed a plea for rationality, plus an assurance that in the event she let the man in and violent crime ensued, all one hundred three pounds of me would leap to her defense.
She only ducked further into her book.
I exchanged looks with the man at the door, and shrugged sympathetically. He could have asked me to let him in, but he didn’t. I could have gone to the front of the store and opened the door for him, but I didn’t. I don’t know why.
The man turned in disgust and walked away, taking his billion-buck briefcase with him. I reluctantly decided not to make my nephew suffer for someone else’s racism with a late-arriving birthday present, so I paid for the cinnamon bear. The clerk’s eyes never lifted above the cash register. I never bought anything in that store again.
This all happened several years ago, but the moment when the three of us stood paralyzed has always stuck in my mind. It is a grim, perfect image of some frustrating truths about the state of race relations in this country.
Behind the cash register, the terrified white person who can’t tell a Crip from a Merrill Lynch representative if his skin color happens to be black. The wimpy liberal sickened by injustice, but too polite and unimaginative to do anything about it. And, banging on the window, the impeccably-groomed guy in the thousand-dollar trenchcoat. Prosperous and successful, but, on some unforgivable occasions, still denied access to the beautiful toys.