I love my H.E.B. grocery store. It is ridiculously enormous – even for Texas. I imagine it would shock the socks of most people coming from another country, or even a big U.S. city. It is like our S.U.V.s and Ford trucks – loud, colorful, and too big for our own good. On the weekends, along with a dizzying food selection, this store also provides me with some fascinating people watching.
This past Saturday, I parked at the back of the also-gargantuan parking lot, snagged one of the last shopping carts, and headed into battle. Even with aisles as wide as most people’s living rooms, it was a challenge getting around. From the moment I exited produce, I was moving opposite an older-than-me gentleman, passing him on every aisle on our westerly adventure across the store.
This guy was fantastic. I watched him, crowded aisle after crowded aisle, gently guiding traffic, inconspicuously moving carts of unsuspecting aisle hogs, reaching the top shelf for little ladies and making funny remarks to his fellow shoppers, me included. He was ahead of me in the checkout line, hamming it up with the cashier and the tiny, tattooed, purple-haired high school girl bagging his 2 carts worth of groceries. He hollered to us, “Ya’ll have a good one!” on his way out.
Of course, he was parked directly across from me when I finally completed the trek to my car. When I finished unloading and turned around to find the nearest place to stash my cart, he was standing there waiting to snag my cart for me. I often grab people’s carts as I am walking by if I can help, but he made a special trip to the back of my car.
After that, he climbed into his big, old truck, well marked by the political stickers of my least favorite politician, and lit up a cigarette.
My heart just sank – and not because of who he voted for. I asked myself, “What if I had seen him in his old truck with his political display, sucking on that cigarette, before I SAW him – the REAL him – in all his glorious action?” Ugh. I realized that I would have immediately viewed him differently – probably as less educated, possibly even as less kind. And he was an amazing person who had added real joy to my day! When on earth did cigarettes become associated with lower human value in my broken head – a head that struggles with plenty of addictive behaviors of its own?
I have read several things written by talented black authors this past year in and attempt to better understand the racial tensions that continue to simmer in this country. I have come across the word microaggressions almost daily. Here is a simple definition of microaggression from Google: “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”
I don’t walk out my door planning to discriminate against anyone, but I probably do it without realizing it on a regular basis. My hope is that the rest of this week – the rest of this life – that I will remember my kind HEB smoking buddy when I interact with anyone who is a little different than me. If I would let one lousy cigarette cloud my judgment so easily, imagine what other unintentional judgments have escaped my attention.
“I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen” – John Steinbeck
For now, I am thankful for a lesson learned, and thankful for the kindness of strangers. My eyes are at least opened a little wider.