27 December 2008

Saying No

The setting was completely different. Back then, I was in a liquor store in Washington Heights. Today, I was in a store called Kagaroo: one of those convenience stores where, among other things, sport fishermen buy bait, tackle and six-packs. And today I had a brief conversation exchange with one of those customers.

Now, I've stopped in stores like it during bike rides along this part of the Florida coast. The recreational anglers--many of whom seem to make their hobby their lives--have been invariably courteous and polite to me. Guys whose limbs are covered in tatoos have held doors open for me, offered to let me go ahead of them on the checkout line even though they were there long before me, and say things, "Pleeas'd ta meeet ya, miss." (!) Today one even tipped his cap to me as I rode across the bridge from which he cast his line.

But in the store in which I stopped today, just south of Saint Augustine Beach, I had an exchange with one of those men that led to another encounter that made me woozy with deja vu, as Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his novels--Breakfast of Champions, if I remember correctly.

The man, who looked older than most of the others, wished me a merry Christmas and asked where I was from. "New York," I demurred. "Visitin' family?" I nodded. "Married?" I nodded again. "Well, I hope he's good ta ya?" I smiled. "Oh, he's wonderful," I replied, almost simperingly. "Well, I hope y'all have a happy new year." I nodded one more time. "Thank you. You do the same."

Then he shuffled to the checkout counter and I went to fetch the pack of sugarless gum I wanted. Behind the counter was a tough redneck's mother, wife or sister (or all of the above) who calls everyone "hun," including the man I talked to, and me.

He was buying two six-packs, two forty-ounce bottles, another bottle of some kind of liquor--vodka, I think. "Y'all gotta stop with this stuff," she drawled raspily. "I want y'round for more years."

He asked for a pack of Marlboros. "I don' mean to hurt yer feelins," she said. "But I gotta. I want to keep y'alive. "

"I'm OK."

"No! Look at ya...Yer stomach's swollen and yer face is all red. This is the last time I'm lettin ya' buy this stuff. Ya heah?" He didn't respond.

After he paid and left, she checked out my pack of gum. "I didn' wanna hurt his feelins'"

"Well, that's what you have to do sometimes."

"I know. But..."

"Hurting his feelings won't kill him. But cirrhosis of the liver will."

"I hope I didn't go too far!"

"Oh, no. You gave him exactly what he needs: You showed him that you care."

I was thinking about that day, so many years ago, when a liquor store owner refused to sell me the bottles of cognac and vodka I wanted to buy. I slammed two twenty-dollar bills, which in those days was more than enough for both, on the counter. "What's your problem?"

"I'm not selling to you."

"Fine. I'll report you to the better business bureau."

"Be my guest."

About a year later, I tried, for the third time, to become clean and sober. You know what they say about the third time being the charm.

Did that woman today spark any recognition in that man? It didn't look that way, but maybe it didn't seem that way, either, when I had that exchange nearly half of my life ago with that liquor store owner in Washington Heights.

And today I had the privilege of riding in all sorts of other beauty: much of it from the sea and landscapes, but some from other sources. Dinner with Mom and Dad followed.

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