The transaction should've been simple, really.
Running errands the other day, I stopped at a convenience store on the city's east side to grab a few items. A pack of gum. A couple of health bars. Some candy for my kids.
I piled the stuff into the bullet-proof carousel that was set inside a scarred wall of Plexiglass that separated me from the old man who was ringing up my goods. I spun the carousel, watched him punch in the prices for my items, paid and then waited. And waited. And waited.
After a few long seconds, the old man behind the counter looked up at me. I was still standing there, hands in pockets, eyes peering calmly through the Plexiglass. "You want something else?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Nope. I'm just waiting for you to bag my stuff so I can go."
He glared at me impatiently, grunted and then tossed a white plastic bag into the carousel. I watched as it floated down onto the the handful of things I'd just paid for. I didn't move, just kept staring through the scratched-up bulletproof glass.
But as still as my body was, my mind was racing. I knew instantly what was this was becoming: a standoff, the sort of test of wills that I endured occasionally at some of the cramped little party stores where I'd spent way too much time and money as a kid.
I folded my arms.
"Thanks, but I don't work here," I said, as evenly and in as straight-forward a fashion as I could manage. "I'd appreciate it if you'd bag up the stuff I just paid you for so I can go."
The glare hardened into an outright scowl. I was getting on this man's nerves. He knew what I wanted. And he had no intention on giving it to me. He pointed into the carousel and then spun it toward me. "What do you mean? There's the bag."
"Yes," I answered. "Now please put the stuff I just paid you for in to the bag. I told you: I'm not on your payroll. I bought the stuff. I don't think it's too much to ask you to put into a bag."
Asked If He's Lazy
Suddenly, something else mixed in with his scowl. This wasn't just impatience or annoyance anymore. Now, the old man was actually mad.
"What are you? Lazy?" he shouted, waving his hand dismissively. "Something wrong with your hands? Stop being lazy and take the stuff and go."
I laughed, loudly, slowly, trying to give myself a calming pause. And, as it always does whenever these situations arise, my mind quickly flashed back to my mom.
Like most parents I knew, my mother used to send me to store 45 times a day (or at least that's how often it seemed). And from the beginning, she had sent me out with rules on how I was to carry myself.
At the top of that list was her edict against the five-finger discount: "You don't walk out of there with nothing you don't pay for, understand? If you don't have money for it, don't even touch it."
Running a close second was her demand that, as a customer anywhere, I insist on being treated with respect: "Don't let people follow you around like you're stealing. Make sure you count your change. And always make sure they put your stuff in a bag."
I was spending my money (or hers), she'd remind me over and again. Businesses were expected to appreciate my patronage, not take it for granted. And if they couldn't then I was to take my cash elsewhere.
Her lessons didn't come in a vacuum. In our neighborhood, where the overwhelming majority of customers were black and most store owners weren't, simple transactions at party stores were too often fraught with contempt and racial tension.
Being Treated Like Criminals
Then as now, black consumers complained about rude clerks and about being short-changed and about being treated like criminals. Then, as now, black people didn't do nearly enough to challenge that treatment.
There were, of course, good people working in many of the stores in our neighborhoods, hard-toiling entrepreneurs who treated everyone fairly and with dignity.
But there also were way too many merchants whose racist disdain for their black customers was so palpable that you wondered how and why any self-respecting African-American could ever repeatedly shop at there. (That some of these places continue to thrive in Detroit today -- places where little black girls are ridiculed, where African-American toddlers are characterized as "gang members," where clerks pretend to pour bleach on black customers -- is less of an indictment of the racists running them than of the black customers who lack the backbone and good sense to stay away.)
Sometimes, the conflicts born of these attitudes boiled over into violence. But mostly, black shoppers just swallowed the slights whole and kept on handing over their money. For them, that was just how business was done.
Mother Stood Up
Not my mother, though. She'd dragged me abruptly out of more than one store because she didn't like how she was being treated or spoken to. There was never any drama to it either, no fists thrust in the air, no marches or protest signs, no grandiloquent lectures to clerks about racism. She'd grab my hand, turn and stomp out.
With her, a customer's money did the talking — and, if need be, the walking.
She believed that her money entitled her to a level of courtesy that was nonnegotiable. To her, having her purchases bagged wasn't just about convenience.
It was about politics, yes, but even more importantly, it was about pride. Nothing was more galling, humiliating and undignified to my mom than the sight of a black person spending money in a store only to then have to stuff six or seven assorted packages into coat and pants pockets.
How could a customer expect a merchant to respect him, she wondered, if that customer didn't first respect himself enough to demand it?
For her, the bag represented that respect, reflected that modicum of gratitude to which she firmly believed any patron was entitled. It was a "thank you and please come again," only with handles. It was a small sign that you mattered.
I thought about this as I unfolded my arms and spun the carousel back toward the merchant. I flashed a quick, cold smile.
"One second thought, keep the bag -- and the stuff I just bought," I said. "Just give me my money back."
He stared at me a half-second longer, then sputtered and began opening the bag to put the items in. Too late.
"No need to bother with that," I said. "Just give me a refund."
"What's wrong with you?" he asked before finally sliding the few dollars I'd given him under the Plexiglass window.
I could've launched into a tirade about how black customers get treated in some stores, about how I work hard and didn't deserve to be insulted as "lazy" by a clerk who thinks it's too much to bag my purchases. I could have called the clerk a name in response.
Instead, I did the one thing my mother taught me that no business can abide for very long. I made the one statement that, above all others, customers in even Detroit's poorest neighborhoods should know by heart when they are slurred, stereotyped and disrespected by the same businesses they keep afloat: I took my money elsewhere.