The shortest lane stretched seven carts back from the register, all the way to the makeshift tables constructed of plywood and four-by-fours, the kind of tables that warehouse stores routinely load with discount-priced, name-brand fashions from foreign countries; well-known labels that advertise in major magazines, on billboards, and on TV. The woman in line just ahead of me turned her head, looked back and around, beholding the busyness that surrounded us. She held several items in her arms -- a bulk-sized cylinder of disposable cups, some paper plates, napkins ... But no cart. No cart? Anyone without a cart in a warehouse store is immediately suspect. No one just stops by a warehouse store to pick up a few paper products.
I scanned the nearby lanes and, as I surmised, she had an accomplice.
A man with a cart full of items stood in the line to our left, his eyes making contact with the woman every few seconds. She kept her elbows tucked to her sides and made small, subtle motions with her hands, pointing first to her cashier, then to his, clearly seeking direction. Did he want her here? There? The man responded by opening his hand, his wrist still resting on the cart handle, his fingers up and tight together, as if to say stop ... stay ... wait.
How devious! This man and woman were playing two lanes at once. Call it what you want, but I call it taking cuts.
I spoke on impulse, said something like "that's not cool," to the woman, who shot me with a bewildered look and a terse reply.
"Playing two lanes at once," I said. "The store's busy. Everybody waits their turn, but we all have to pick one line. Just pick one."
There are lots of ways to say something like that, and I'm not sure whether my tone was civil, or curt. But the words that came out of the man with the cart in the next lane suggested that I had been curt.
"Shut up, we're not breaking any laws, she's fine," the man said.
He appeared, to me, like a husband. I can't really explain what a husband looks or sounds like, except to say that I'm married and he looked and sounded the way I would look and sound if someone dressed my wife down in a checkout lane.
I laughed, not intentionally, but out of incredulity, the same way I did 20-some years ago as a restaurant waiter after I'd accidentally spilled an entire glass of Cabernet Sauvignon on a customer in a cream-colored suit. I wasn't laughing at the guy, I was laughing at the tragic irony of the situation. He wore a cream-colored suit. He ordered red wine. A law governing checkout lane etiquette? Of course! A law! Why not a law? Laws are the 21st Century solution to everything, and this churlish situation was in desperate need of something like that. By all means, summon the state Legislature, place the US Congress under call ... Phone the President on the red line! The golden rule needs teeth. All of America seems to have forgotten that most basic childhood mantra: No cuts. No cuts. No cuts.
Somebody had to speak up.
I knew what I wanted to say. I had the word right at the edge of my brain. It was a grown-up word, a positive word, the only word I needed to utter and everyone within earshot would surely nod in agreement, but then ... the word was gone. It slipped away and out of my head. So, I said something less ideal.
I said it was "unethical" to take cuts, which, in a warehouse store checkout lane is like ... well, uh ... like ... like ranting about ethics in a warehouse store checkout lane.
"Ethical?" the husband said. "What's ethical? What are you talking about? There's no rule. No rule. No law. No ..."
My brain went offline and became locked in a word-search stutter "it's ... it's ... it's ..."
Everyone was staring at me with their ears.
This was my Ira Glass moment, my "This American Life" story. This was the point at which the music crescendos and wanes to clear the way for the voice of that public-radio icon, Ira Glass, so that he can offer a poignant moment of reflection, explaining that this is where I realized I'd passed the point of no return, that I could either continue to argue and risk looking like a hothead, or capitulate. I could apologize. I could walk away. Pick one. Same result. I lose.
This was what Ira Glass describes as "the cringe," that moment in which we realize that "the world sees us differently than we really are ... and not in a good way."
There I was, standing behind my cart, this word "unethical" hanging in the air between checkout lanes, when some guy in line behind me speaks up, my one-man cavalry.
"It's discourteous," the guy behind me said.
I didn't know who he was. Still don't. But the moment I heard his voice I wished he hadn't tried to help. By this point, even I had begun to doubt whether I'd done the right thing. As bad as it felt to be branded a fool, I preferred it to being seen as an agitator. So, I didn't turn around to thank the guy behind me, nor did I explain that, yes, "discourteous" was a much better word than "unethical," but still a negative word, and not the positive one I'd lost.
I was ready to let it all drop when the guy behind me picked it up again.
"That's the problem with you people," the guy behind me said. "You people come to this country and you don't have any respect for it."
I didn't just cringe, I immediately said what I thought: "THAT is not at all what I'm saying," I said.
Up until that moment I had completely overlooked a detail that obviously made a difference to the guy behind me. To him it was not only obvious, but a far more serious issue than simply taking cuts in a checkout lane. You see, the woman in front of me, and her husband, appeared to be Asian Americans, though, of course, it was impossible to determine exactly how many generations their family had been in the USA.
I'm fifth generation Irish American, which I rarely profess, but when I do it often elicits some crack involving alcoholism.
The husband, justifiably I think, told the racist guy behind me to stuff it. The wife let the guy have it too.
I finally turned to have a look, couldn't help myself, and, sure enough, the racist guy behind me wasn't just white, he could have reasonably been mistaken for a relative, my brother maybe, or a cousin. Irish. Got to be some Irish in there.
I cringed again.
"I'm not saying that at all," I repeated, quietly this time, as though lowering my voice would further dissociate me from the white racist guy behind me.
"Why don't you people go back where you came from," the white racist guy behind me continued, and all I could think about was every white racist I'd ever encountered, most of whom I met while in the course of performing my duties as a journalist during the past 20 years. I used to puzzle about what it was that made some racists confide in me their utterly ignorant points of view, especially when it never had anything to do with the stories I happened to be reporting at the time. Did they think I agreed with them? Was it because I'm white too? Of course. That was exactly it. Racists believe skin color determines character, or lack thereof. So, they also assume everyone who looks like them shares their hatred. Ignorance has no off switch.
I hesitated to respond.
Few in the news media report these kind of stories, except the radio program "This American Life." It tells tales like this all the time, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for them to persuade people to particpate. This is a discussion from which many shy away, not just for the fear of being misunderstood, but the fear of what might be revealed.
During the last presidential campaign, for example, an episode of "This American Life" titled "Ground Game," which first aired on October 24, 2008, focused on union members who'd been challenged to confront the racism of colleagues who refused to vote for presidential candidate Barack Obama simply because of his race.
One of the union members interviewed for that show remarked that he regretted the experience. However noble the quest may have been, it opened his eyes to the hate that he never realized existed in the hearts of his friends and coworkers. This was hate he could not quell, and it changed his perception of the people he saw every day.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who used to know folks like that, at least until I realized it. Thanks to the ease of e-mail and the reconnections afforded by social-networking sites like Facebook, such revelations have become even more common. It happens every so often. Someone I've known for years will include me in an e-mail forward of some racist joke they thought was funny. My response is always the same. I express my disappointment. I describe the joke as "ignorant." I tell them to forget my e-mail address.
As the fracas between the couple and the racist man behind me continued, I noticed another checkout lane open up. I moved fast, physically distancing myself from all three participants without so much as a word.
The verbal confrontation went on, and, though I couldn't see, it sounded as though it nearly came to blows. The woman's voice boomed as she warned the racist guy behind her that she would sue if he hit her ankles with his cart.
I felt ashamed, as though I should at least walk over and apologize to the woman and her husband, but I couldn't. Not only was I unsure of how to express what I felt, I was afraid of being misunderstood. I never for a second suggested anything hateful, I simply objected to blatant line cutting, which, granted, now seems ridiculously insignificant considering how things had escalated. As for the racist guy, nothing I had to say could save him from drowning in shame. My only motivation for diving in would have been to comfort the couple and to save face. I wanted to show the couple, and all those strangers around us, that I was not with this loser, that I knew ignorance when I heard it, that this isn't the way our American life is supposed to be.
And if I went that far, I'd have to go further. I'd have to give a history lesson, to explain that this was not why we go to war, not what our soldiers die defending. This is what we've been struggling for centuries to change. Even my ancestors were victims of it for generations. The term "you people" may sound nicer than a racial epithet in 2010, but it's really just a cowardly way of saying what "dirty Irish" meant in the 19th Century. Merchants may no longer post the 21st Century equivalent of "NINA" signs in their windows -- signs so named because they said "No Irish Need Apply" -- but the message is imparted in other ways -- in attitudes, in tones of voice, in body language. My great, great grandfather changed his name from O'Sullivan to Sullivan in the hope that, without an "O," it would be more difficult for ignorant people to determine his ethnicity. The Irish were ridiculed publicly, and popularly, as inferior. They weren't the first, and, I'm sorry to say, they weren't the last.
Had I started in on the racist guy, I'd have told him that every time I hear someone denigrate or demonize minorities, I translate the words into "dirty Irish mick," but I didn't say anything. No one else did either.
No one spoke up. No one. Not necessarily because they were on the side of the racist guy, but probably because lecturing someone on race relations in a warehouse store checkout lane is like ... well ... it's like ranting about race relations in a warehouse store checkout lane. Where does it stop? After pulling items from the guy's cart to highlight the many countries that manufactured the goods he's purchasing? While checking the labels of his garments to list the nations that put the clothes on his back? Before following him out to his car to reveal that, though it may be the product of an American company, it was either assembled abroad and/or comprised of parts from several different continents?
As I loaded my purchases into my car I watched for the couple in the parking lot, figured I could at least offer a handshake. I didn't see them, but I thought about them all the way home. I've thought about them most every day since.
I've encountered several more instances of line cutting in the past couple weeks, but I care a lot less about it now.
Queues. Lines. Americans are obsessed with lines. So many people boast about the short cuts they succeed in taking -- short cuts on their commute, short cuts in business, short cuts to buying, or selling, a home -- then they decry the unfairness of those who cut in line ahead of them. Many proudly declare the accomplishments of their ancestors, the ones who came to America with nothing in their pockets, yet they fail to see the hypocrisy of demonizing today's penniless immigrants. American politicians on both sides of the issue talk about all of this in terms of lines. Who should stand in what line? Who should be allowed to stand in the line? Should we close the line to this group, or that group, or all groups?
Basic human decency rarely warrants a mention.
I once asked a conservative Congressman how he could reconcile his radical stand on immigration with his Christian morals, particularly the biblical ideal imparted in the phrase "love thy neighbor." He didn't respond, but an aid said later that I had submitted my question too late, other questions were in line ahead of mine, there wasn't time to address my concern.
That's the grown-up word I forgot while standing in line.
It appears I'm not alone.
TJ Sullivan is the author of the novel "Boon."