At the top of our street there is a small shopping district complete with a handful of restaurants, a produce store, a drug store and a grocery store. I am a regular shopper in the Winn-Dixie primarily because of its convenience. It’s also it’s a bit cheaper than the nicer and more expensive Publix a few miles down the road which requires dealing with a heavily trafficked intersection to get there.
But there is another reason I shop at the local store. Winn-Dixie has a very different clientele from the largely middle class shoppers at Publix. The folks at the Winn Dixie – both the employees as well as the customers - tend to be working class, ethnically diverse and there are a lot of retired folks my age and older there.
In many ways the customers at the Winn-Dixie remind me of the small town in which I grew up with its hard working, dirt poor farming families. Though I left that small town with its small minds the first chance I got - moving out the day I graduated from high school - there is a part of my soul that has always been attuned to the lives of the hard scrabble folks among whom I grew up. Though I rarely found much to respect in their anti-intellectualism, manichean religions and their tribal ways of dealing with outsiders like me, in my 11 years there I learned to respect their simple lives. And I learned to be grateful for their poorly paid hard work which insured that professional middle class people like me had my daily bread on the table each night.
This day these two grocery stores with their very different clientele would provide two revealing snapshots of our country today.
The Dropped $20
The first I was privileged to observe. I had gone to the Winn-Dixie to pick up some fruit and pecans for dinner. The fruit would serve as our salad and the pecans went into a sweet potato/blue potato/carrot dish I would spice up with a little blue cheese and the last shot of coconut rum left from a friend’s visitation a year ago.
Because I only had three items in my basket, I got into the line leading to the customer service counter which serves as relief check out at rush hours (I was there right at 5). It’s also the place where the state of Florida collects its regressive tax on the superstitious and the desperate through the sale of lottery tickets.
There were two people ahead of me in line. The man at the counter was an elderly Latino man. Directly in front of me was a white woman who looked to be in her 80s, bent over with age. She could easily have been my Mother.
Everyone was doing their best to communicate through the masks we all wore.
The clerk behind the counter was Asian, perhaps from one of the many Vietnamese families who have settled here and now make up about 5% of our population according to Census estimates. I love to be in her lane. She is always cheerful and does an expeditious job on my checkout.
This day she was encountering a problem. The elderly man had thought he had handed the cashier a $20 through the plexiglass COVID protection screen to cover his small purchase but had actually only handed her a $1. When the cashier told him the bill he had given her would not cover the purchase, he said he thought he’d given her a $20. She held up the $1 and thereafter began a frantic scramble in search of the missing $20.
After a moment, noting that he was holding up the socially distanced line which had now grown to three with a customer behind me, he reached into his wallet and produced a $5 to cover the purchase, apologized for his trouble and turned to leave the store.
As the elderly woman immediately in front of me stepped up to begin her business, which involved getting a new member’s card to replace the one which had expired, she suddenly bent down to the floor in front of the cashier. As she stood back up, she exclaimed, “Here’s his $20!”
She handed it to the cashier who without a word turned and dashed out the doors into the parking lot behind the elderly man. “Sir! Sir!” she shouted loud enough to be heard across the entire lot and back into the store. She caught him just before he drove away in a pickup truck that, much like its driver, looked like it was on its last legs, and restored his small fortune to him.
Everyone in line stood silently and patiently as the cashier engaged in this unexpected mitzvah. The cashier returned slightly out of breath, apologized for the delay and immediately began her transaction with the elderly lady. She explained to the woman that when she had her purchases ready to return to her counter and she’d issue the new member’s card as part of that transaction.
Then it was my turn to step up.
To Some Folks That’s a Lot of Money….
As I emptied my basket onto the counter, I thanked the woman for her kind deed. She immediately deferred to the elderly woman saying it was her good deed that had made it all possible. And there was some truth to that.
But I thought to myself, how many people would have simply put the $20 in their pocket and said nothing about it. “Finders, keepers,” they would have told themselves to rationalize their selfishness. Indeed, in a consumerist culture which has taught us it’s all about me, isn’t that what one is supposed to do?
I persisted with the cashier. “I just want you to know I appreciate it,” I said. She replied, “You know, $20 is a lot of money to some people.” Indeed. Like the folks who can only afford to shop at this store including retirees on pensions and social security like me.
I drove home with a smile on my face, my mask now resting on the seat beside me and my glasses back in their place. I’ve learned I have to choose between the two when I go into stores – the glasses inevitably fog up from exhaling through a mask. As I reflected on what had just occurred, I suddenly thought of John Wesley when he spoke of experiencing a heart strangely warmed. This was a genuine moment of grace, an unexpected and mysterious experience of goodness where none had been predictably expected, indeed, where the circumstances predicted a very different outcome.
I had been privileged to witness a genuine act of selflessness in a culture which preaches the virtues of self-interest über alles. The world was a little better place because of that random act of kindness. And it dawned on me that this was a little taste of the values of the America I have always believed in at work, an America I am praying it is not too late to resuscitate and reestablish.
If that happens, it will only come at the cost of some sustained hard work. The angry, self-focused, adolescent America will not simply disappear because of a random act of kindness in a working-class grocery store. Indeed, if anything that act of momentary light is striking in its sharp distinction from the darkness of the angry cultural matrix in which it occurs.
By the end of the evening, I would be sharply reminded of that.
Holding Up the Line
I had just finished my crossword in bed that night as is my custom and turned on my IPad to get the latest on the monster storm approaching the central Gulf Coast before saying my final prayers. Having survived the loss of a home from a hurricane previously, I am highly sensitive to the potential for death and destruction these increasingly prevalent and ferocious storms pose.
But the headline that jumped to the screen was not of an approaching storm. It was news of a much more local act of mean-spiritedness. This one also occurred in a grocery store, a Publix in Daytona Beach Shores, a wealthy ocean-side community south of the main drag of what locals there proclaim as “the world’s most famous beach.”
There a 75-year-old man standing in a check out line had asked the woman behind him to step back to maintain social distancing. He had recently had open heart surgery and thus at high risk from a COVID19 infection. Hence he was anxious for his fellow customers to observe what public health officials have repeatedly told us is one of two things the average citizen can do to help beat back a killer pandemic - social distancing and proper wearing of masks.
Most grocery stores including this one have done a good job in marking their floors with tape to indicate the requisite six-foot distance. The woman stepped back without a word. It seemed like a rather ordinary encounter in an age of pandemic.
All of that changed when the elderly man reached the parking lot.
According to the local police department, “a man in his 30s approached and told him, ‘You (expletive) redneck gator, how dare you?’ [He] then told the victim he was holding up the line and punched the him in the chest, causing the elderly man to fall and hit his head on the asphalt. Records show the man stood over the victim as he was on the ground and told him, ‘One word and I’ll kill you.’”
As the assailant left the parking lot in a late-model Cadillac, the victim noticed that the woman he spoke to in line was in the passenger’s seat, according to the report.
After local television stations aired the footage from the parking lot security cameras asking for identification of the man and woman in the incident, they surrendered themselves to local police. Aggravated battery charges are now pending.
Cultural Shadow: It’s Not Hard to See the Ugliness
There is a lot of ugliness in this encounter. Having travelled to three different continents over my lifetime, I quickly became aware that the “ugly American” of which I was largely oblivious previously was instantly apparent to those whose countries I was visiting. The luster of American exceptionalism that we take to be self-evident dissolves the minute one crosses our border in either direction.
But it doesn’t take a trip abroad to see that ugliness in this story – disrespect for the elderly, impatience based in a sense of entitlement, a focus on supposed rights with no corresponding sense of responsibility to others and an insecure - and thus toxic - patriarchy which constantly feels the need to prove itself, its first resort being to violence.
In many ways, this is a snapshot of the other America which is just as much a part of us as the first. It was hardly what I wanted to see last thing before bed and I did not want to look too long. But, like those watching slow motion images of a train wreck, I found myself unable to look away.
What fascinates us at the same time it horrifies us is a glimpse of our culture’s Shadow. It is marked by an egocentric adolescence that refuses to mature into adulthood. It was given permission to come out to play in the last election and has enjoyed a four year marathon of brazen ugliness ever since. We have been told we must pay allegiance to competing tribes which find their raison d’etre in dehumanizing the other. And our mass media gleefully celebrates as the bottom line for decency is lowered daily.
If it bleeds, it leads. And the advertisers rejoice.
We will not come to grips with this celebration of the Shadow by denying it. And we would be deeply mistaken if we attempted to repress it, once again forcing it back into our collective psychic sewer. Shadow content rarely stays put. And the potential range of vulnerable targets for the projection of the Shadow should give all of us pause.
We have to own this darkness, this America that so many of us don’t want to love. That includes all of our history, not just the shiny parts. But it also includes all of our present. The pain and fear that is experienced by all the parties to this conflict is real and must be acknowledged. And we have to be willing to recognize that for those who have been subject to our national Shadow from the genocidal conquest of the “new world” to the ongoing consequences of chattel slavery, that Shadow has never really been hidden at all.
Decisions About America’s Very Soul
If there is any doubt that America is currently making
decisions about its very soul, these two events, occurring on the same day
within miles of one another, ought to remove any doubts. The sanguine, heart-warming vision from my local
grocery store is just as much a part of our soul as the violent confrontation
which occurred in that grocery store a couple of hours up the I-4
Corridor. They are both a part of who we
are. The question we are answering right now - in the terms of the apocryphal morality
tale sometimes attributed to Native Americans – is which wolf
we will feed.
A voice from our past offers us some guidance here as well as a warning. Abraham Lincoln sought to guide our nation through its most divisive period up to now during the Civil War. Lincoln spoke of the “better angels” of our nation’s soul and Lincoln called his countrymen and women to live into the same. The events in the Winn-Dixie at the top of my street last Tuesday suggest we are capable of doing exactly that. The question is whether we will find the will.
Lincoln also had words of wisdom to offer a nation on the other side of the deeply polarized period of his own time in which the two tribes involved had readily engaged in mutual anathematization. I am clear that should there be a changeover in our nation’s governance this fall, it will be imperative for the victors to not lose sight of the humanity of their vanquished foes, to practice “malice toward none and charity toward all,” as Lincoln recognized in his second inaugural address.
Again, we are capable. The question is whether we will prove willing. And the answer to that question may well mean the difference between the survival of a country any of us recognize as simply the latest version of its 244-year-old self or whether our experiment in democratic-republican self-governance will collapse into failure.
We rewarded Lincoln for his vision as we do most prophets, killing him to put him out of our misery. It is only once the prophets are safely out of the way of business as usual that we become willing to canonize them. Saints confined to pedestals can’t cause many problems.
This November, 157 years after those fateful words were first uttered, that decision is once again in our hands.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2020