I buy my produce at a local stand staffed by quick-witted men, and part of my routine of buying bananas and baking potatoes and carrots is trading barbs and quips with them, sometimes for the entertainment of passing tourists. It’s one of the small ways that I feel like an insider in this city so much bigger than the place that I grew up, one small way to assure myself that in spite of being educated and no longer dressing in hand-me-downs, I’m seen as “ok”.
Early this morning when I walked by as they were setting up, they did a quick riff around the stand on who they would or wouldn’t friend on Facebook, tossing a few rounds out to me on the sidewalk, and I shot a few back without missing a step. When I went back later to stock up on fruit, the guy helping me said “and that will be $500o and don’t tell Obama I’m not charging you the tax or he’ll be here to collect”. “A bargain” I shot back. “But I gotta tell you, from the taxpayer, to my paycheck, back to your till”.
And then it wasn’t so funny anymore.
“They’re going to make $30,000 middle-class”, he said. “And then raise taxes on the middle-class. That’s what I heard”.
“Yeah, that’s one thing that might happen”, I said. “While those way up there just coast”. I was bagging my bananas, paying for my things.
He brought back my change.
“Yeah, but I sort of see their point too, but I’m living for my paycheck, you know?” he said.
And he talked about his mom dying of cancer and worrying more about paying her bills than about the cancer.
And about his two boys in the service because “they just couldn’t see going $80,000 in debt to get the training that they’re getting there”. One wants to be a fireman.
I asked if they were in a safe place, and he said one was, and one wasn’t, but he understood their decision not to go into debt for their training, even though he wasn’t for the war.
I was done with my shopping. There weren’t many tourists around, and the other guys were sort of keeping their distance. But I tried so hard to listen. I said something about my mom and the constant talk about costs at the end, and about other family members unable to afford their groceries.
I put my gloves back on. My nice gloves.
“Well, thanks for the oranges. And for the talk.”
“No”, he said. “Thank you. Really. Thank you”.
I had no idea why he was thanking me for this rare and raw talk about class and inequality and the precariousness of so many lives right now.
And then he waved as I was walking away, he said “All I can do is watch. I don’t have a voice in any of this and they wouldn’t listen if I did. I’m not educated. I only have a high school education. So I don’t know about all of this”
I said something lame about his knowing how to tell those stories about his mother and sons that need to be heard.
And my educated self walked back home, wishing that I understood more about who to be, outside the confines of my classroom where it’s all too easy to talk about these things happening “out there” and I more often know what to say.