March 4, 2007

Shut Up, That’s Why

In recent weeks, I’ve written about my paranoid efforts to camouflage my daily alcohol consumption by spreading my beer purchases between six or seven different stores near my home—supermarkets, delis, greengrocers. No matter how brilliantly conceived, however, someone always sees through the ruse. It happened again recently, which means the time has come to scratch another one of those stores off the list.

     There’s a Korean grocery five blocks from my apartment that had always been an easy mark. It was bright, simple to navigate, and the beer was cheap. I’ve been going there for 16 years now, and I’ve never had a problem. No one in the store ever spoke to me—not once in all these years—which made everything very simple and pleasant.

     On the morning of Tuesday, January second, I headed up there again, to begin replenishing the supplies which had been sorely depleted in the previous days. The girl at the register was the same girl who was always at the register. She’d been at that register, in fact, every time I’d gone to that store for at least the past ten years. It was a family operation, so I’m guessing she’s the daughter, who’d been at that register since she was nine or ten years old. (To be honest, it wasn’t until the past year that I even realized she was a girl).

     So anyway, I walked in the store and straight to the beer cooler in the back, grabbed two sixers, and brought them up to the counter.

     “Happy new year,” she said. This in itself was a shock, as I’d never heard her speak a word before.

     “And happy new year to you,” I replied in what I felt was a neighborly manner.

     “So you celebrate now?” she asked.

     “Excuse me?” I said, not really sure what she was talking about.

     “You celebrate now?” she repeated.

     I stared at her, confused, finally asking “Eh?”

     “All this beer,” she said, as she put them into a bag. “Two of them.”

     “Oh, no,” I said. “This is just for everyday use.” The minute the words left my mouth, I knew I’d made a mistake. English was clearly her second language.

     “Every day?” she asked, sounding astonished. “You drink all this every day?”

     “Well, maybe . . . no . . . maybe just one,” I said, in a feeble attempt to cover myself. “The other’s just for . . . you know . . . backup.”

     Even as I was speaking, I knew it was hopeless. I’d been found out (again). I let the words trickle off into silence.

     “That’s a lot of celebrating,” she said.

     I said nothing more. I mean, she was smiling, there was nothing all that accusatory or condemning in her voice. She seemed good natured about the whole thing. But still, I much preferred it when they ignored me, took my money, put my damn beer in the bag and let me go on my way all but unnoticed. I do my best to avoid being noticed, but it rarely seems to work. This place always made me feel invisible, which I liked. Up until now, at least.

     “Yes, well,” I said finally, as I handed over the exact change.

     I grabbed the bags and headed for the door. I knew if I could reach the door in silence, get out there on the sidewalk again, everything would be cool. The people on the sidewalk didn’t matter.

     “Hey,” she shouted behind me. I turned. “Don’t drink them until tonight, eh?”

     I tried to pretend that my grimace was a smile as I pushed the door open.

     Before the door closed behind me, I knew I wouldn’t be going back there again. That was okay. There were plenty of other places.

     Two days later, I made a morning run to one of my standbys—an odd, narrow corner deli a block and a half from that damnable greengrocer. Once again I casually strolled back to the cooler, grabbed two more sixers and brought them to the counter. There were a few other customers in the store, but they were either waiting for sandwiches or buying lottery tickets.

     As the Ecuadorian man behind the counter put the beer into a bag, he asked, “Cigarettes?”

     I was regular enough there that he knew I often bought cigarettes, too. That was different, though—he never made any cracks about how much I smoked. Just asked if I wanted them or not. It was their twofer deals that got me stopping there in the first place.

     Best as I could, I scanned the two-for-one rack on the wall behind him, but saw no brands I could tolerate.

     “Ahh, no—none today, but thanks.” I was reaching for my wallet.

     “No, he doesn’t want any cigarettes” said a man next to me. “He doesn’t smoke.” I turned and saw a young man who worked in yet another store that was one of my regular beer stops. He was grinning at me. “Do you?” he asked.

     I was confused and speechless. I’d seen this guy stocking the shelves, but we’d never spoken. There was only one checkout girl in that grocery store I had ever spoken to, and she’d left over a year ago. What the hell was this all about?

     “No, no smokes,” he said, turning back to the Ecuadorian, “He just drinks.”

     I wanted to scream, why in the fuck don’t you people just leave me alone?—but I was frozen. Plus, I knew if I yelled, I’d have to scratch this place off my list, along with the one where smartass here worked. And then where the hell would I be?

     I handed a bill over to the clerk, collected my change, and left.

     Thinking people notice me at all leaves me feeling like a ridiculous paranoid. That being the case, however, what am I supposed to think when they make pointed observations to other people about my purchasing habits?

     Oh, hell, I know what I am. I’m a fool. And why should I care if anybody else knows it? I’m helping their business out, aren’t I? And in spite of the shame, it’s still a damn sight better than the old days, when I used to swing by the (sadly defunct) discount liquor store every day for plastic jugs of cheap gin and three dollar bottles of wine.

     Perhaps the real lesson here came a couple of weeks later. I was in yet another grocery store—a big one, where remaining invisible was a given.

     I was standing in front of the beer cooler looking for something I liked, when I felt a tug on the sleeve of my coat. I looked, and saw a tiny old woman who was pointing at the top shelf where the twenty ounce bottles were kept. It was well out of reach for her, and though she said nothing, it was clear she was asking for help.

     I followed her finger, which seemed to be directed at a big bottle of Miller High Life. I pointed at it myself.

     “This?” I asked.

     “Yeah,” she said.

     I pulled the bottle from the top shelf, but before I could hand it to her, she snatched it from me.

     “Ahhhh,” she said, her voice filled with victory and joy as she held the bottle aloft, “that’s the stuff!”

     Then she thanked me, put the bottle in her basket, and headed for the registers.


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