It happened, again.
This time, in the grocery line.
I’d grabbed a couple early evening, post Sunday matinee snacks and taken my place behind those who appeared to have the least number of items. Two guys, knit capped, the one slightly bearded, directly ahead of me were perusing the tabloid mags on the rack just behind them. As one commented to the other, I noted the latest TIME special edition feature: “The Criminal Mind.”
Feeling a tad grandiose, I pointed to its title and ventured some crack about Italians all being corrupt. As expected, they turned to look at me. Tossing my olive skinned, greying brown haired head to one side, I demured:
“Well, not all of them.”
My own father, second generation Napolitan/Sicilian blend, had always maintained a flawless public testimony – or, so I’d always thought.
The more we chatted, the more gradually I noticed the telltale accent of a Latino coming from the more talkative of the two. And so, typically of me, I asked him.
Reaching up to insert his card into the reader, he answered me. “Yep.”
Then, I did what I too often do. I asked the next question. And, I did it because I was born in 1957, raised in this town, and had grown to expect that asking would be acceptable. I said:
” You know Julio…Julio Reyes?”
Smiling, he said: “No….”
“Owns Latinos — the restaurant??”
I was genuinely surprised. I thought everybody knew Julio. Or, at least, everybody who enjoyed real Mexican food. Like, Mexicans. Ergo, Julio.
The cashier, tall African American, young, bright eyed….smiled, looked at the two Mexicans.
And, because, even though an aging biddy I am still a quick study, I got it.
Looking right at him, I crowed: “Oh, I am SUCH a white girl!”
[ he was laughing, now ]
“I know….”All black people are related!” [ he doubled over ]
“All Mexicans know each other, personally!”……
[ everyone chuckling ]
“All Italians are corrupt…….! “
The three men busied themselves. I rearranged my items on the conveyor.
“Well…….my little daddy was a sweetheart”, I said, softly.
I thought, again, about that moment when somebody I knew said he’d been told dad was the man. And I felt, again, just how much I did not want to believe it.
The two Mexicans finished their purchase. We all smiled at my transparency. I shimmered.
My turn, at the register. The young cashier’s presence was too hard to resist. And, so I had to ask the next question, the one I always ask.
“You know, I taught school for twenty five years. Had four thousand students. I still bet you might have been my…..what school did you go to?”
Nope. Didn’t teach there.
“What’s your last name?”
Nope. I’d gone to school with a woman with the name, but hers wasn’t recognized by him. In fact, he scratched the back of his head with one finger, averted his eyes, and mentioned that he was known by another family name. Still, I had to tell him the family names I knew. And, he was already no longer interested.
I felt sorry.
Sorry that I had been born in 1957. Sorry that I had done the thing, yet again, that would define me forever as the white girl who just had to ask all the questions that used to mean a willingness to generate conversation, create an atmosphere of casual openness and, most of all, express a genuine interest in finding the connections which linked people to one another. In this town, that used to mean not just family, but family origin. The generation which endures dismissal today used to know that people from certain parts of the world always settled in specific neighborhoods, and then stayed there. We all grew to know that they preferred to spend time with one another, largely because they shared their own language and secondly because they knew that staying close would keep everyone accounted for. And, our city was small. Each of these neighborhoods was block to block, side by side. We had Poles, Russians, and Czechs. We had Germans, and Irish. We had Italians, for miles. We had African Americans, which were called Negroes then. And, they all made their life purpose the sustenance of their people – its customs, its food, its dress, and its family names.
I wonder whether the young men who passed through that grocery line will give any of this another thought. Perhaps their parents will help them understand.
The cashier completed my sale and, as he handed me my receipt I thanked him, by his name. And, he smiled, again – brimming with authenticity, and inner strength. His smile came from deep within his heart and mind. And, his laughter had forgiveness all over it.
I’m glad about that.
Because the next time I’m the white girl, I’ll probably do it all again.
© 11/18/18 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the white girl, whose name appears above this line. Thanks for your forgiveness and respect.
The bookstore was the warmest place to be on the coldest November day.
And, her north wall would not endure another, whole year without its large calendar being adequately replaced.
She’d stared across the livingroom at the space between the levelored windows, for the last time, determined never to stare at that wall again for the rest of her life, unless the block calendar with its proverb for each month was within direct sight line from the sofa.
Last year she’d waited too many weeks, and the bookstore’s selection of remaining 2018 samples had come up short of expectations. Settling for some poolside garden setting theme, only to find its color scheme too purple for the room’s palette, she’d just left the previous December, with its simple: “Be Kind And Carry On” as place holder for the entire year.
Now, time was truly of the essence. The second winter storm would be upon them by late morning, bringing freezing rain to crust the waning first snow. And, the bookstore had confirmed: their 2019 shipment was racked, and ready.
This year, the store had chosen to place the large wall variety on a rotating spindle display. After several revolutions, there at last was her proverbial, boldly colored favorite. But, just above it – a stunning series, images of Italy. Though talk of a trip to whomever would listen had been ongoing for at least the past five of a total seven since retiring, she’d likely not soon be getting to Italy. Tucking that one under her arm, she added the flat art favorite, and then spied Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, in cartoon, offering monthly Yoga for the year. No senior woman worth her own salt should be without this vitally hip exercise aid heading into the cusp of the close of yet another decade. Up came Ms. Ginsberg, to join the rest.
Calculating that the Yoga calendar would work near the mirror opposite the railing barre in the loft and the views of Italy would make the music room pop, she wended her way toward the check out, all three securely in hand. Rounding the corner just beyond the recipe books, reading glasses, and Godiva, she could already hear the familiar deep basso resonance of the former radio host turned store clerk addressing the needs of an unseen patron just ahead of both herself and a smiling gent who said nothing.
Peering around him, she could just see to whom the clerk repeatedly spoke. A tiny woman, her tightly pulled grey hair almost white around her head, seated in a rolling cart chair, barely able to see above the counter upon which were placed several, thick hardbound novels.
She could clearly see the books. One John Grisham. Two John Sandfords. No, three. Another, by an unknown woman. Her weight shifted from one faux leather boot to the other. This could be awhile.
No. There was no interest in the stuffed Grinch promotional exclusive. Yes, to a contribution toward the elementary school book drive. Would points to her store membership be welcomed?
She was not processing the content of their exchanges, only watching both, hearing his voice fill the otherwise empty room and hers barely audible above it. The silent gent turned, smiled apologetically, then took an alert on his smartphone.
Another woman approached, from behind, wearing a necklace with roped silver, her outfit its complement. She wondered where the woman might be going after a solitary bookstore visit on this Thursday morning. Two more patrons appeared, behind her. They were a line of six, ahead of the ice storm which would surely glaze upper Peach Street within the hour.
She turned to the woman in the silver necklace, commenting on her outfit. With a gesture toward the counter, she made mention of their mutual future as aging women – including anecdotal references to her own father, nursing homes, and the anticipated final third of life without dependents. Was she also single? No; the woman was a mother of four. Nodding with respectful envy, she bowed her head slightly and resumed her stance facing the counter.
The tiny woman was finally paid in full for her $160 order. Slowly, she stood. The store clerk handed her the plastic sack of hardbound novels. Could she get that? Would she need help? The bag of books settled into its spot on the seat of her rolling cart, as she bent to secure it. Oh, I think I should be fine, in tones of seasoned familiarity.
And so, she spoke. Perhaps he might call for assistance, to help the woman get everything to her car. The booming basso cut into the quiet, summoning available help, as the tiny woman moved away from the check out counter toward the exit.
The space cleared, she was up. He opened with the promotions and the school book drive. Hastily, she added the stuffed toy for her grand niece, thinking of the twin siblings due any day. Having taught public school for 25 years, for her the book drive a no brainer: Clifford, the Big Red Dog. Was she permitted to return any one of the calendars, if unopened? Paid in full, she too moved toward the door.
The tiny woman was still seated, large burden in her lap. There was a soft expression on her face, a faint smile at each corner of her mouth. Her eyes were quietly alert.
In less than a breath, she felt her spirit enter the woman’s body, hover, and return. Approaching, she spoke to the woman. Would she like some help?
They were quickly joined by the bookstore manager, complete with laniard and peeping walkie talkie, who pushed the woman in her cart out thru the door as she held it and over to a blue, four door sedan parked at the front of the store. The walkie talkie’s peep crescendoed and the two women relieved her, chatting already and gathering the car keys which, of course, were manually required to unlock the doors.
Had she been a teacher? No; but she was often asked if she were. This was her reading for the whole winter! Well, who wouldn’t believe it? Folding the rolling chair cart, just able to lift and place it in the backseat, the woman crept down into the driver’s seat and turned, smiling.
What was her name? Colleen. Colleen Ahern. Was there anyone to look in on her? Yes; she lived behind Mount St. Benedict, happily well cared for and won’t you have a lovely Thanksgiving!
You have a wonderful winter! Carefully closing the door, she stepped away.
In a rush of hope she crossed the lot, manually unlocking her own door and settling into her front seat. Tail lights lit, the blue four door sedan sat idling for several minutes. She watched the woman wait until she was sure her engine was sufficiently warmed, then turned to arrange her packages on the passenger seat. When she looked back, the parking spot was empty. The sedan was already moving onto Peach Street, ready to coast all the way to Harborcreek before the storm descended. Before any threat of isolation could lurk. Beyond any doubt or fear, a stack of novels waiting to become her world, one for each month of the year’s end and up and over and across to the new one.
Carry on, Colleen.
© 11/15/18 Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of this author, whose name – not Colleen – appears above this line. Thank you for respecting authentic stories.