For most of my life, I was extraordinarily soft-spoken and shy.
I feel like an alien amongst my own family in North Carolina even; oftentimes cringing at their racial slurs and half-assed jokes about "illegal" immigrants, and the all too common jabs at our president. Their material is invariably lame after six years.
It's a sickness. So many times, I've imagined myself standing in front of them, Walter Mitty-style, commanding attention and asking who in the hell do they think they are? I don't know if they've just completely forgotten that their daughter is married to a Mexican-American.
But recently I discovered I've developed a breaking point.
I'd had a dreadful day. I'm easily discouraged and had felt defeated after a presentation I gave didn't go as planned. Driving home, I knew my pantry and fridge were bare, so I stopped for some groceries.
I was waiting in line to check out and nearing a perfect state of zoned-out apathy when I heard exaggerated, annoyed sighing on one side and two old voices speaking in Spanish on the other. I pretended not to listen as the man said to the woman, "Mijita, no tengo suficiente dinero!" ("Honey, I don't have enough money.")
I started discreetly rummaging through my pockets for some loose change because I could see that they were only short fifty cents. The cashier, a young woman, beamed with privilege. She must have thought it would be a real crowd pleaser to mock the old man and woman and in a loud, drawn-out condescending voice (because volume and over-pronunciation increases one's ability to understand a foreign language) she said to the man, "You owe me fifty cents!"
She had an incredulous look on her and exhaled with each exclamation, as if she couldn't believe the couple's nerve to hold up her line.
Then she said it: "Just what we need! More Mexicans! I know they have money 'cause they don't pay taxes. I wish I could live for free."
My heart started racing. I could feel my cheeks burning. I was about to come unhinged. I mean, I was dipping into an uncharted anger that lives deep inside my soul. Another employee of the store began apologizing to the others in line (who didn't seem to mind that much). From her tone of voice, she might as well have been saying "Just a minute and these lazy illegals will be out of here..."
That was it. My threshold was crossed.
"No hagas caso a ella! Te ayudaré. Sólo necesita cincuenta centavos, señor. Lo siento mucho," I said to the couple who were growing increasingly confused and upset. ("Don't listen to her! I'll help you. You only need fifty cents, sir. I'm so sorry.")
I thought her heart would stop. I gave her fifty cents. The old couple thanked me then gathered their bags and left hurriedly, seeming embarrassed. Well, you should have seen the disgusted look on the cashier's face. I felt blind with rage. My cheeks were on fire now and my head was starting to sweat.
"You should be ashamed! How dare you! I want to see your supervisor... RIGHT... NOW!"
The manager moved like molasses out from behind a closed door and I met her halfway. The store wasn't crowded, but several people were watching (and in my imagination, they were really rooting for me). I wasn't about to cower, though I felt myself losing steam. Remember, this isn't like me.
Assertively I said, "Can we talk about what just happened here?"
I felt my senses coming back. I was in too deep. Rolling-with-Adele-deep. The manager looked at me as if she'd rather have been using an outhouse in a war zone than there with me. She answered with the kind of wishy washy nonsense that I should have anticipated.
I mostly talked about how one human being should treat another human being. It was a fool's errand trying to convince her that what happened was wrong. She was one of them. I was a bleeding heart. This kind of behavior is accepted and encouraged here.
I refused to appear as weak as I felt, so I paid for my groceries silently. Defeated again. I had to make a point. As I was leaving, I told the cashier that her behavior did not make her look cool, it made her look like a fucking asshole. She reacted as if I were the asshole. Maybe I was, but I had to say something.
And it felt damn good because I was damn mad! I knew I was going to cry when I got to my car. But so many folks need a refresher course in humanity and if I have to give it, I will. I have practice now.