Op-Ed: Inside the Skin

An unmasked man called me a sheep this morning as I waited in line at Trader Joe’s. Believe me, I dished out some solid zingers later as I re-lived the conversation in my car on the way to my next errand. But, why would a short man with a mustache insult a masked gray-haired woman in a flannel shirt and flats for no reason?

I’d arrived at the parking lot at 7:50 a.m. to take advantage of senior shopping hours. Because of the store’s effort to reduce capacity to enable social distancing, a line had formed. It ended by a table occupied by two men drinking coffee outside Bagel Plus. “Are you in line?” I asked. They shook their heads no, and I took my position six feet beyond them.

One of the men said, “So. What’s in Trader Joe’s that’s worth waiting for? You could cross the street to Shop Rite and walk right in.” He’d been pleasant, so I launched into my list of Trader Joe’s delicacies: shrimp burgers, dark chocolate covered peanut butter cups, frozen halibut, and mahi-mahi burgers, “heavenly when grilled!” I added.

He nodded, satisfied, and said, “They have some specialty items then.”

They were joined, at that point, by the short, rude man. My shopping motives held apparent fascination for he, too, asked me the same question about waiting. His friend said, “She’s already explained. I’ll fill you in.”

“Sheep,” said the rude man, looking at me.

Startled, it took me a moment to process. “That’s an insult,” I said, though with question in my tone, for really, why would he bother? The man shrugged and nodded.

There are countless “I-should-have-saids” that would have been wise, calm, and cutting, and if anything similar happens again, my in-car rehearsal has now equipped me. But I am spoiled in being unaccustomed to fending off unkindness, and all I came up with on the spot was bland truth, “it’s not sheep-ish to stay healthy. “

After Trader Joe’s, I drove to Stop & Shop, still rankling, but not hurt. Being called a sheep is the mildest of affronts, but the comment stayed with me. Given the protests churning the country, I reflected, how would it feel to live with the routine threat of harsh words, racial slurs, injury, injustice, and death? These based not on one’s actions but on something that was God’s decision alone. When does that hurt, frustration, and anger erupt?

  • When, for eight minutes, Officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd, a black man who has done no harm.
  • When Ahmaud Arbery is hunted down and shot for jogging while black.
  • When plainclothes police burst into an apartment without knocking and fatally shoot Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, eight times.
  • When cell phone technology permits video proof, and white people can no longer look away.

Brute force. Intrusion with no knock. Rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters. Have the First and Fourth Amendments been scrapped? Is the Constitution still law or just a list of suggestions? And when we love color and diversity in all else, in flowers, fabric, and our fellow creatures, why is it cause for suspicion in our own kind?

As streets worldwide boiled with protesters willing to risk Covid so their voices might be heard, I shopped for groceries. While passing in aisles, masked shoppers were cordial, saying, “hello” or “excuse me” or “stay safe.” Thoughts of the rude man subsided as I sought corn meal, potatoes, butter, and birthday cards.

My rounds complete, I wheeled my cart to check out. The cashier, an African American woman with a tumble of magenta curls, greeted me. Her mask hid her mouth, but her eyes were smiling. No one waited behind me, so our conversation was leisurely as she registered my selections, and I packed them in paper bags. We talked about the anguish of past weeks, and our hope that good would come of it. She told me about her daughter, who’d been successfully treated for bone cancer when she was eight years old, and how grateful they both were to her doctors. She drew herself taller as she told me her daughter had wished to give back, and now, at 34, is a radiologist.

Oh, the cashier was proud of her girl! She pulled out her phone to show me a picture of the two of them, and in the photo, I was able to see my cashier’s smile. In that moment, we were two moms bending over the phone, teary-eyed together at the thought of the torment of her child’s long-ago cancer and beaming (behind our masks) at today’s pride in her daughter’s path.

When we parted, we were earnest in our wishes that each other stay healthy, and curved our arms in an air hug. Surely that encounter is the one more true? May the horror of Floyd’s death and the furor released shock us into connection with the people inside the skin.

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