Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Flashback 2002: Sad day when trip to toy store turns sour

    What did you think of my ballet review yesterday? Honestly, while no one complained, I felt it sort of sagged. I just couldn't get my head around saying something interesting about the experience. I fudged, and dragged in Tchaikovsky's history with Chicago and the Columbian Exposition, trying to smokescreen the fact that I had very little of worth to say about the dance itself.
     I began to wonder if I've EVER written anything worthwhile about the ballet, and in searching came up with this. It isn't about the ballet either, though it mentions the word. But it was so unexpected, and a reminder that not only did people once regularly go downtown to work, but there were toy stores waiting there. That's reason enough to share it. My vacation is officially over today, and I'll have something fresh — in theory — in the paper on Wednesday.

     "A simple 'No' would suffice."
      It was the end of a long day this week. I was rumpled, tired, just another business guy in a creased raincoat, stopping by the Toys R Us on State Street to buy marbles for his kids. My kids like marbles.
     I waited in line, handed the clerk the metal box of marbles. "Phone number area code first," she ordered, in that robotic voice clerks use.
     "Do I have to?" I asked, imagining Toys R Us calling at dinner to hector us about Barbie. "Can't I just buy the marbles?"
     She gazed hard at me. 
     "A simple 'No' would suffice," she snapped.
     I looked at her for the first time. Young. Maybe 19. Black. Eyeglasses. For the next second, I pondered my reaction. The thought bouncing in its seat, waving its arm and going "oh, oh, oh" was a sharp, "A lot of attitude to be coming from the clerk at the Toys R Us."
     But I didn't say that. I took out my money, silently, because I had a feeling of . . . well, it's hard to describe. The Germans call it weltschmerz. A sadness at the world. I obviously wasn't the first customer this young lady had to face. She probably had it up to here with whining white guys in raincoats. She'd probably been itching to zing one of them, and it was my turn. Sure, I could vent at her, and she would either vent back or, realizing that her $5 an hour job might be in the balance, would click into her polite mode, which would be worse.
     I said nothing. That she was black was significant. "She probably hates these raincoated white guys, tramping through here, buying their metal boxes of marbles for their pampered kids at home, refusing to give their phone numbers lest their white suburban idylls be interrupted by other black teenagers in basements, selling magazine subscriptions."
     That's certainly some kind of white guilt. Maybe I should have called the manager over and ratted her out and felt good about it. But the guilt is what I felt. Guilt and a desperate longing for civility. She could have said, "Fork over the phone number, Mr. Potato Head," and, after the initial shock, I would have felt the same urge not to get into an ugly argument with the clerk at the Toys R Us. I paid my money.
     "Would you like a receipt?" she said. This was my chance. I smiled, seizing on a reply. "I suppose I should limit myself to a simple 'Yes,' " I said. She seemed to get my point. She gave a little laugh, and we made eye contact for a second before I grabbed my marbles and rushed away.
     For 100,000 years of human history we clung to our families and our tribes. It's premature, and foolish, to imagine that the past 50 years of enlightenment are enough for us to cast all those things aside.
     In every encounter I have with another person, I coolly note and calculate their race and age and class — in every single one — and as far as I'm concerned anyone who says they don't is a saint or lying.
     Lying or spouting the party line. We tell ourselves we live in a colorblind society — white people do, anyway. That's why we have random checks at airports. What they're really doing is frisking people who might be Islamic terrorists — we seem to be having a problem with the Muslim world; I hope I'm not the one to break this to you.
     But pulling aside every Arab-looking traveler and checking their shoes offends our sense of fairness, so we toss periodic 3-year-olds and grandmothers and congressmen into the mix, as a smoke screen.
     Is it really necessary? My first instinct was that stopping Arab-looking people at airports is not racial profiling. Racial profiling is pulling over a black motorist for driving a Cadillac through Lake Forest and having him spread-eagle on the car until he's found to be the owner.
     I was about to say that's wrong because most blacks driving their Cadillacs through Lake Forest didn't steal them. But then, most Arabs moving through airports aren't terrorists or would-be terrorists or even cousins of terrorists, but assistant managers on their way to Toledo, Ohio, for a button convention.
     This is complex, but of one thing I am certain: better to acknowledge the burden of our prejudices and try to overcome them than to pretend to have a colorblind society that doesn't exist.
     The morning after I bought the marbles, I was hoofing up Wabash on my way to work, still thinking about the Toys R Us clerk, and marvelling at the little ballet of racial antinomy that I, and maybe she, engaged in. A short, swarthy man stepped up to me at Wabash and Wacker and asked, "Can you tell me how to get to Michigan Avenue?"
     I pointed at the Tribune Tower. "You see that building?" I said, resisting the urge to add, "that nightmarish monstrosity of arches and rocks scavenged from the garbage bins of old European cathedrals?"
     Instead I said: "That's Michigan Avenue."
     He thanked me, but before he moved away, I considered adding, "You're looking for the Mexican Consulate, right?" But I stopped myself. Just because the man was 5-foot-1, with a dark complexion and a Pancho Villa mustache didn't mean anything. That was the language of hate. So instead I asked, "What are you looking for on Michigan?"
     "The consulate," he said.
     "In that case," I said, "you want to take a right at Michigan. It's on the west side of the street." I walked off. Two seconds later, I realized he never said which consulate he was looking for.
           — Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 15, 2002


  1. I think we've all felt we have to be careful at times so as not to appear racist, even if the store worker or such, is rude. Who knows, maybe that is patronizing.

  2. I relearned a word today, thank you. Antinomy is a fifty center.

    1. You're welcome. I had to look it up myself after 20 years. At first I thought it was a typo, for the element, but there is a second meaning: "a contradiction between two apparently equally valid principles or between inferences." Sadly useful.

    2. Nicely done. With an almost O.Henry ending. Though the "yes" would have been a good place to end as well, but not as exquisitely.

  3. Whenever they asked for my Zip Code, I always answered "90210", after the TV series which is the Beverly Hills California Zip.
    Radio Shack was far more intrusive, they wanted a name & phone for even a $1 purchase, so I looked up & memorized Radio Shack's corporate number in Texas & gave that to them.
    And I believe the Mexican consulate is now on Ashland a couple of blocks south of Madison now.

    1. I've been known to say 02134 after the kids' TV series, Zoom.

      Radio shack was the worst. I avoided them because of it.

    2. God, yes! Radio Shack! I think there may be a book to be written about that outfit.

      You couldn't buy a light bulb in one of their stores without being sharply quizzed for your entire name and address. Before computerized point-of-sale terminals, when they had to write out receipts by hand, there was a big blank form above the item lines where the buyer's name and address was expected to be filled in.

      To this day I can remember a Muncie, Indiana RatShack store clerk, with a pistol on his belt (I believe he was a moonlighting police officer), with pen poised over the receipt book, waiting for me to confess my name and address. I would politely decline (I was already on their mailing list anyway), as usual, but this was always met with deep surprise, as usual.

      Things got even more entertaining once you were on their list. The weekly ad flier (back in the 1970s or 1980s) would include an editorial from the CEO with a title of something like "From the Chairman's Desk," filled with extreme right-wing views on whatever popped into his mind that week. He would have been a huge Trump supporter.

      Radio Shack, in my experience, did eventually give up the aggressive in-person contact info collection, though I suspect it was not so much from buyer pushback but because other options for getting the same data became more available.

      I miss the fact that our local store is long gone now, as their specialty electronic hobbyist parts were as well-stocked as a good hardware store. Their on-line service seems to have died now as well, but I know my contact info will live on forever.

    3. I still have working weather radios that I purchased from Radio Shack years ago. They had good stuff. But Radio Shack's annoying data collection bothered me, So I would either decline and say I was already on their list, or misspell my name and give them incorrect addresses, phone numbers, and zip codes, usually one digit off.

  4. I liked your Nutcracker review very much...never been, but might go based on your post. Welcome back, hope it was a good stacaytion.

  5. Hi! I loved the Nutcracker column. I went on Saturday, too. I think the reworked version is amazing & pardon my Chicago bias, way more relevant. Thank you for today’s column. My daily food for thought. Mary PS

  6. 🚢🏽‍♀️Trans John/Karen 3/22December 5, 2023 at 8:54 AM

    The clerk could have reacted by mentioning that lots of people don’t, it’s okay if you don’t care to. Having worked behind a cash register for too many years, that’s what I would have done, grumbling a little about the company’s policy, just to let the customer know I’m on their side. Even if they act like I’m some sort of sub-human species just for having the job in the first place. Which happens just often enough to engender resentment on the clerk’s end. Still, her initial response was wrong. Maybe?
    Or maybe she herself thought the job was beneath her. (Always remember the actors’ credo: There are no small roles, just small actors.)
    Having been there myself, she may have been dealing with responses a lot worse than the one you gave her. (Try telling somebody they can’t buy alcohol without showing I.D., or informing them that they can’t buy beer at 4:30 a.m. Sometimes it gets physical. My attitude was, ‘between 11p.m. and 7 a.m., I’m God. In fact, I’m better paid than She is!). At some point, letting things hit you and bounce off can eventually leave you with bruises and dents. Sometimes open wounds.
    Okay, I can’t put this off anymore, after reading your reply. Saw this on ‘Buzzfeed’, a while back, and didn’t get much of a response at Thanksgiving, but a certain word popped up.
    A priest, a minister and a rabbit walk into a blood bank to donate. The rabbit tells the nurse, “ I’m a ‘type-o.”

    1. now that is fine humor. took me 10 seconds, but when it hit me, it hit hard

  7. This was such a nicely and pithy piece Mr. S. I learned 2 words tho not sure how to use Antinomy. Maybe the feelings many people have about the Palestinian Israeli conflict? But am glad to know a the word, "weltschmertz" for a feeling I get most every day. Sometimes, when asked for the zip I say "No thank you". Hard to argue with that!

  8. I like your writing style. I usually find something to think about even when you choose to write about ballet. I like that you enjoy words, word origins and word meanings that evolve over time. I like that you introduce me to new words like "weltschmerz". I'm will file that one close to "lacrimae rerum".

  9. I think the reason behind the lack of response is the fact that people care about ballet almost as much as they do opera.

    Plus, the Nutcracker is a horrible story of an abusive uncle who experiences a drug-induced fever dream and subjects a little girl to it.

  10. As I see it, there were four possible outcomes...A) get pissed off and initiate an ugly shouting match, B) rat out the clerk and put her ass in a sling, C) slam the marbles onto the counter, hopefully allowing them to scatter all over the place as you storm out of the store, or D) swallow your anger, pony up, and do nothing.

    Depending on the mood I was in, the likely choices for me would be A), closely followed by C)...depending on how angry I allowed myself to become. B) might have been an option, as well. D) is probably the adult solution, because the others could get you into a mess. Way more security hovering in the background now. You could get ventilated over a heated exchange in a store. Shit happens. Every goddamn day.

    And, of course, I would also look like a white racist geezer to the girl ringing me up. Not that I care what some snarky ageist teen with an attitude thinks of me. She probably hated her cashier's job...no...resented is a better word. Much better. Indignation at having a low-level customer-contact position. Disgruntled discontent. Feelings of deserving more...far more...and far better...than clerking at a check-out counter. Hey, nineteen, you're probably not the only one who's felt that way.

    There's also an obvious racial component to all of the above, but I've opted not to go there. Did Mr. S take the high road...or did he wuss out? He chose not to lose his cool ...and he kept his marbles. (smirk) Probably a better man than I would have been.

    All this happened over twenty years ago...and I don't think many places ask for personal data anymore. In the cashless society, there's no longer a need for it. The credit card tells them what they feel they need to know...and sell. You've traded your privacy for convenience. But true privacy long ago went the way of the ten-cent phone call and the fifteen-cent hamburger. They already know everything about everybody, everywhere, all the time. Long live Big Brother.

  11. Lighten up, fellow codgers! Management makes them collect your information, a simple no thanks is the proper response. My pet peeve was a young clerk handing me my purchase, responding to my "Thanks", with "no problem". Happened to me buying a gift card at Starbucks this afternoon, but I've mellowed. I reserve my scorn for management and parents who neglect teaching manners to their whelps.


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