It is true, I have the oddest retail experiences of anyone I know. People ask if I stand in line all the time, but I don't. It is just that.....well, listen.
Stop at a BP station, ten miles outside of Knightdale, NC. Not a metropolitan setting. I set the gas pump to fill the tank (it has one of those little clips on the handle, so you can start pumping and then walk away).
Go inside to get some coffee. Behind the counter, implausibly (we are 20 miles from a town of even moderate size), is a very Sikh man. Turban*, loud non-English yelling into a cell phone, Indian music from a small radio.
He is yelling nearly non-stop. I congratulate myself on what an international, cosmopolitan place I live in. I pour the coffee, get the cream from the little cups with paper tops, and then look for a place to throw away the little cups (each of which holds exactly one spit of cream).
There is a white trash can over at the entrance of the cash register enclosure. I put the spit-o-cream cups in the trash. The can had a swinging lid, and I pushed my hand through and dropped the trash in.
Walk around to the front of the little counter, put down the coffee, and say, in my best "Southern Gentility Welcoming Person of Color and Foreign Origin to the New South" voice, "Good morning, sir!"
And my Sikh guy stops talking for the first time since I entered the store, looks at me like I just spit on him, and says, "WHAT!" Not a question, more like an accusation.
Astonished, I hold up the coffee. What I want is pretty obvious. I want to give him money.
"What about the Skoal!" Again, not a question. And his eyes made it quite clear I would need to work quite a bit to rise about the status of simple excrement.
It took me a second to realize he meant the famous Skoal, perhaps America's favorite smokeless tobacco. "Just a peench between your cheek and gum," as Walt Garrison used to tell us in the TV commercials.
"I don't want any Skoal." Meekly. I'm not sure why. But the attack was so unexpected. If he had been white I would have yelled at him. But I was being welcoming and cosmopolitan. And Sikhs were treated rather badly after 9/11 by people who thought they were Muslim (as if THAT were an excuse).
Sikh puppy, shouting again: "You took some Skoal! I heard you. I heard you take it!"
Now, I don't see how he could have heard anything through the third world economics lecture he had been giving over the cell phone. But he could not have heard me take Skoal, since I hadn't.
The only thing he could have heard was the trash can lid. I said so. "I got coffee, got some cream, and put the cream cups in the trash." And then I stared at him.
He backed down, but only in a technical sense. "Sorry, sir, I thought I heard you get some Skoal." His tone was precisely that of, "So, I hear yo mama is a Christian, you piece of dung."
I walked out to the car, and he was still peering at me out the window. Last I saw, his turban was bobbing behind the window; for all I know he was writing down my license number so he could call the police on another "Skoal absconder."
1. If I were black, it is likely I would have an experience like this, or worse, at least once a week. Since this REALLY pissed me off, realizing the fact in the previous sentence is pretty unsettling. So, I did learn SOMETHING from the experience. It sucks to have people just completely mistrust and disrespect you, for no reason. This is not exactly news, but it is useful for white people to get reminded of it (society takes care of reminding all the non-whites).
2. BRITISH Petroleum? Like it is still the Raj? Is that the problem: a taste of the deflated empire?
3. Skoal? Of all the things to be accused of shoplifting. I want to think I look more like a sensual guy, the kind who would need to steal condoms because I go through so many (well, not literally, but...). But Skoal? I don't have any teeth missing.
*This description of Sikh turbans is unintentionally quite amusing.