Besides walking up to Douglass Truth Library or sitting on a bench in Pratt Park my other lunchtime activity includes walking to the International District, a.k.a. Chinatown. I go to the post office. I go to the bank to get quarters to do my laundry. I go shopping. My favorite place is LV's Produce located on Jackson just before it dips under I-5.
Yesterday while I was at the checkout counter purchasing limes, serrano peppers, coconut milk and Thai curry paste a tiny, bizarre incident occurred.
A young man reeking of an insecticide-like cologne and vibrating with junkieness approached the young Chinese woman who operates the cash register. He asks to see the manager. The young woman, who is a friendly and polite teenager with good English for a non-native speaker, asks the guy to hold on while she finishes ringing up my purchase. But the young insecticide man doesn't listen. He asks, "Is the manager here? Are you getting the manager? I want to ask him something. There's something I need to know. Are you the manager?"
The young insecticide man has worked himself from left to right around the L-shaped checkout counter. My first thought is that he's looking for work. But his stammering agitated state does not preclude the possibility of a robbery, something which the teenage Chinese woman -- who I like; who always greets me with a smile and a hello when I enter the shop; who is fresh and clean and pretty -- seems to begin to register as her jaw slackens slightly, her neck stiffens and fear rises in her eyes.
The young insecticide man continues addressing the teenage Chinese woman, "Can I talk to you? Here, come here. I don't want to say it in front of him," referring to me. "I don't know him."
I look at the teenage Chinese woman as I slowly load the grocercies into my shoulder bag. I try to communicate to her without saying anything -- I've learned over the years that silence is often more meaningful in a conflict situation -- that I'm not going anywhere. Be not afraid. She replies to the young insecticide man, "No! What do you want?"
"Do you accept food stamps?"
"No! No stamps."
"Well, it's not something I feel proud about. My wife and I were just looking to get some groceries."
And with that he is out the door and off into the rain. I could have said something, like don't feel bad. Food stamps are good, a vital government program that benefits everyone. And besides, don't forget, we're the government, or we're supposed to be. But as I said, in most situations silence is the more meaningful response.
I nod farewell to the teenage Chinese woman, who, though undoubtedly experienced at handling this type of situation given LV's Produce location, seems, nonetheless, to be adrift in confusion. And then I am myself off into the rain.