Mined from the notebooks, Monday, April 17, 2017. Posted Sunday afternoon, May 7.
King of Prussia. Have to tell you. The crew of baristas at our local B&N have got me spoiled. They know me and greet me by name. They smile and sound glad to see me. If they've spotted me entering the store, they'll have my coffee waiting for me when I reach the counter. Half of them have my membership number memorized. The others feel guilty that they don't and apologize for having to ask. They're friendly and generally genuinely cheerful. They're not chatty, and they're certainly not flirtatious, but they engage. And I think they appreciate it that I'm not chatty either. I know all their names and I ask how they are but I don't pry and I resist making Dad jokes and I almost never complain---because they almost never give me any reason to. When I do, when the coffee's a little cold or they've rushed and rung my order up wrong, I'm careful not to sound like I'm even a little annoyed or disappointed. Having them there to wait on me makes going there the best part of my day and I'm pretty sure having to wait on me isn't the worst part of theirs.
What this means is that I'm used to attractive young women being nice to me.
This isn't due to any special charm on my part. Mainly it's that they're just an exceptionally nice group of kids. And they're good to all their customers. But I think it's also the case that I remind them of someone's kindly grandfather.
And it's not just at the one Barnes and Noble. I usually get friendly and attentive service wherever I go. Again, I'm pretty sure it's the grandfather effect. They see the white hair and beard and my stiff and halting gait and they feel naturally solicitous and even a touch protective. I don't expect it, but like I said I'm spoiled, and I can't help feeling a bit disappointed and even a little hurt when a waitress, barista, cashier, or counter girl seems less than thrilled to have me as a customer. Like this morning, for instance.
The young woman who served me my coffee at McDonald's wasn't outwardly hostile or rude. She wasn't exactly indifferent either. She was worse than indifferent. She was cold, and cold in that way that is purposeful. It's not an attitude. More like a deliberate absence of attitude. She was letting me know that while she noticed me and had to acknowledge my presence, I wasn’t to think that I or my presence was of any importance to her. It felt as if she was saying, “It's not that your existence means nothing to me, it's that I am willing it to mean nothing to me. Whatever feeling you might under other circumstance have inspired---pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative---I am choosing not to have. In effect, you are not a person to me. You are simply a phenomenon I am required by my job to deal with. I have the same reaction or rather lack of reaction to having to mop the floor or put together a Big Mac.”
Ok. Could be I was being over-sensitive. I get like that sometimes. I know I come across as a tough customer here. Hardboiled even. It's an act. Inside, I'm a marshmallow. And she might just have been in a bad mood or maybe she was tired---I don't know when her shift started. It was around nine o'clock. They open at five. She might very well have been up since four. Earlier even. Many of the workers here commute from downtown Philly and it can take an hour to get here from there. And of course, preternaturally observant and insightful as I usually am, I'm also prone to flights of fancy and I could have been reading her all wrong. Inventing her in fact. Turning her into a fictional character without thinking about it. Something I have a habit of doing and I'm normally careful about it. But whatever she was, she wasn't happy to see me and she wasn't friendly. Her eyes were without light. She didn't even try to smile. Her face was a mask. And her voice was cold. When she replied "Good Morning" to my "Good Morning," it was rote and without any sign that she agreed or disagreed that it was a good morning. When she said “What can I get for you?” I felt like the expected answer was “Nothing. Just browsing. Sorry I bothered you. I'll show myself out.”
Still, I should have shrugged it off. And in fact I pretty much did. It wasn't her unfriendliness I was thinking about. It was her hijab.
Not that she was wearing a hijab. Well, sort of. It was a long and flowing one that served as a shawl as well as a scarf and I thought it was impractical for working behind a counter at a McDonald's. I wondered how she kept the ends from getting in the way when she bent over the french fries station. But mainly I was thinking about the problem its color would cause me when I went to describe her in my notebook, because I was sketching her in words in my head as I was watching her just as I do just about everybody and everything that meets my eye and now aren't you hoping never to meet me? The problem was this. The hijab was black, which left me no easy word to describe her, because she was black. Black as in not white. I'm still dealing with that problem which you might not think is much of a problem. "A young black woman wearing a black hijab with long flowing ends." That's all there is to it. Or should be. But here's how it went in my head.
Forget the hijab for a moment. If it was a white girl behind the counter I wanted to describe for some reason I wouldn't use the word white. White is still my default, much as I know better. But I am getting practiced at not using the word black in a way that signals that I think of white as everybody’s default either. Sometimes race is implicit in descriptions that include hair color, eye color, or complexion. But if I was to write a young woman with light brown skin and dark brown eyes wearing a hijab, readers would reflexively picture her as Middle Eastern. You might think, as I did at first, that the thing to do would be to write “a young African American woman wearing a hijab” but you might not have had a conversation with one of my students who is black and explained to me the problem she has describing herself. She prefers black to African American because she isn't African American. She's Jamaican-American.
Her best friend is Haitian-American.
She grew up in a mixed neighborhood in New York City where most of her neighbors were black but only some were African American and many weren't American at all or at least not yet. They were African. Others who could technically call themselves American weren’t North American. In her experience the only neighborhoods that can be safely described as African American are found in the South. Which presents her with another problem. How to distinguish between her African American neighbors who are Southerners from those who are born and bred New Yorkers.
We had this conversation when I was helping her edit an essay about the lack supermarkets in inner city neighborhoods like hers and I suggested that for variety and clarity's sake in a paragraph in which she'd used the word black quite a number of times as an adjective and noun she change one of the blacks to African American.
Naturally I was a little embarrassed when she explained why she couldn't do that. Some of my embarrassment was that of a self-satisfied white guy caught being a white guy. Some of it was that of a self-important professor being corrected by a student. None of it was that of the Trump voter of song and story who infuriated by just being given the option to hear the voice mail instructions in Spanish hangs up in a fury, fuming about political correctness and taking our country back. I don't know about you but I actually get a kick out of being "embarrassed" by this sort of experience.
It reminds me how fun and interesting it can be to live in a diverse and pluralistic country or a part of it where diversity is a defining characteristic, at any rate. I've lived in the Midwest. This is why I've never had a strong desire to travel overseas. There's too much left to explore close to home. I’m going a long way around to saying that the young woman's hijab in itself was not what focused my attention. It was the questions it raised about her. I wondered about her background. I wondered how she got here. Here being behind the counter of this particular McDonald's, a trip that began for her the day she was born wherever that was, and I wondered where that was.
Mrs M's hometown has grown more diverse in the many, many, many, many---goddammit, I'm old---since we started dating. Mostly that's been due to families of Asian, Indian, and Pakistani descent moving in, along with a fewer number of black and Hispanic families, and the diversity is a matter of ethnicity not class. This is a suburb full of professionals. But the staff at this McDonald's is almost entirely black. But not all of them are African American. The manager is Jamaican, although I don't know if he's Jamaican-American. Most of the staff probably lives in nearby Norristown, but like I said some of them come in from Philly, which is a hike and a long way to go for a job at McDonald's, especially when you consider there are plenty of McDonalds in the city. Not enough to give jobs to everyone who wants one, apparently., a point to have in the chamber the next time someone says to you that THEY don't want to work. At any rate, I don't know if this woman was African American or any sort of American at all. I detected no particular accent inflecting the very few words she said. Her pronunciation sounded more formal than that of most Americans of any color from any region but there's nothing to be deduced from that. Hijabs aren't exotic but that doesn't mean she wasn't. But I'll never know and this is why we have fiction. To know things about people we can't really know. So, like I said, it wasn't the hijab itself that intrigued me. It was what else she was wearing along with it.
Pink fingernail polish.
Bright pink fingernail polish.
Barbie Pink fingernail polish.
It was so pink that it caught my eye at the same time as the hijab---and her height. I didn't mention she was taller than me. And very slender.
The pink fingernail polish struck me as incongruous with the hijab but that might just be ignorance on my part. I associate hijabs with modesty and bright pink fingernail polish with, well, not immodesty but not feeling shy and retiring at the time of application. I also don't associate it with working the counter at a fast food restaurant since it's work guaranteed to ruin a nail job in a matter of minutes. Which explains my initial reaction to what happened next.
I ordered my coffee, medium, two creams, two Splendas, my usual, to no reaction from her except telling me the price. A dollar six. Not only does McDonald's serve the best coffee in the world, you can't beat the price. And, yes, I have considered the probability that the price has a lot to do with my thinking it's the best coffee in the world.
Now here's something if you're a regular reader you probably already know since I've whined about it here often enough. I'm still not steady on my feet. Standing for any length of time puts a strain on my back. So when I'm in a store or a restaurant and it comes time to order or pay I have a habit of leaning with one hand on the counter. This means I have to do some things one-handed, like get out my money or credit card. I'll take out my wallet, set it on the counter, slide out the bills, then leave them on the counter while I dig for any required change. Which is what I did, setting the nickel and penny that I happened to have on the dollar on the counter.
"Would you pick that up and put it into my hand?"
I was startled. This was the first time she'd initiated an exchange of conversation. But I didn't think anything about it at first except that it was an effect of the pink nail polish. She couldn't pick up the money because her fingernails made that too tricky. So of course, gentleman that I am, I did what she asked while saying in a friendly way "Sure!" Then it registered. The absolute coldness in her voice.
She hadn't asked.
It wasn't a request. It was an instruction and one she thought she shouldn't have had to give. And it didn't have to do with her nails. She wasn't protecting a recent manicure. I took a quick glance at her nails and saw that they weren't that long and the polish wasn't new. And then I saw that while her face remained impassive there was now an expression in her eyes and it wasn't friendly. It was angry and resentful.
I'd insulted her.
And I had no idea how.
And that's what I've been wondering about and what I'm still wondering about now.
What did I do wrong?
There’s a good possibility that she’d put her hand out to take my money and I didn’t notice because I was concentrating on actually getting at my money. If that was the case she might very well have thought I was deliberately making her have to pick up the money either because I was disdaining contact or I was in some other way demeaning her, treating her the way I thought her initial coldness did me, as not worth notice or consideration. But I worked retail and I don’t remember there being an accepted rule about how customers forked over. Maybe the rules have changed. So was I being unconsciously rude to an overworked, underpaid counter girl and have I been accidentally insulting the baristas at B&N when I don’t think to put my money right in their hands? Like I said, they have me spoiled, but maybe I need to be more considerate. Being more considerate toward everyone is generally a good policy.
Or maybe she was just in a bad mood.
But I wonder. Did it have anything to do with her hijab?
That is, was there a culture clash I'm too white guy American obtuse to have known to avoid? If so, I’d like to know about it. Not just so I don’t make the same mistake in the future. I want to know because, like I said, it’s the sort of thing that makes living in these United States one great, long explore.