There I am, on the “service” line at my local Best Buy. Two employees are engaged behind the counter, and ahead of me, carrying a computer keyboard, just one other person. I can’t imagine there’ll be much of a wait. But for whatever reason, there is. In each instance the customers, just why I can’t determine, are involved in lengthy conversations. Still confident I’ll be served shortly, and in no particular rush, I stand there calmly, just gazing about. For a time the fellow in front of me, a tall, lean, gray-haired guy, probably in his late 30’s or early 40’s, stands motionless, seemingly at ease.. But then he begins to stir, his body language suggesting growing exasperation and impatience. I’ve waited on enough lines in my life to know that it’s just a matter of time before he decides to sound off. And, the only one around to complain to – is me. Sure enough he starts letting me know he’s upset. Somehow he’s concluded the problem is that neither of the customers speaks English very well. Since I can’t hear what is being said at the counter, I can only assume he’s reached that conclusion because both of them are not white, quite possibly born overseas. “You’d think after all these years,” he says, “they’d learn to speak the language.” It’s clear instantly where he’s coming from. I have no intention of feeding his prejudices. I counter, noting that my grandparents who came from Europe never learned English, even after living in the U.S. for decades. Still, l opt for a diversion at this point and mention that these days your mobile Smart Phone can translate for you. He’s heard about this and seems impressed how, with technology, we can overcome language barriers.
Inexplicably I am now informed that he installs windows. Moreover, he recently completed several big jobs – 20-30 new windows, big bucks involved. That’s followed by a complaint. “The guy never tipped me. Big expensive house, rich people, but they’re cheap. Maybe that’s how come they’re rich,” he tells me. He then mentions another “big job” where he got a $5 tip. “I gave it back, told him he needed it more than I did!”
He’s likely concluded that I’m a good listener so he moves on to another sore subject. Someone, he complains, has messed with his computer; insisted he pay them before they’d clear things up. “I hear the Pakistanis are doing this sort of thing.”
The good news is it’s now his turn and he moves to the counter to discuss his “tech” problem. Who knows what else he would likely have revealed to me. Even so, in the space of just a few minutes he had already unburdened himself, disclosed a series of grievances that lay just below the surface, and that he felt little hesitation sharing. He had, I sensed, identified me as a fellow “white man” (everyone else in our immediate area was non-white), assumed I’d understand and sympathize with his views.
Few today question the presence of working class discontent. Millions of Americans sensing a loss of status feel neglected and trapped having experienced little or no improvement in their lives. In this instance the fellow managed in practically no time, and almost automatically, to disparage and scapegoat colored people, the wealthy and foreigners. For him there was little doubt that he’d become a victim. Can we assume he was speaking for countless other disgruntled Americans?
Had our wait on line been longer could I have encouraged him to reconsider some of his views? Could I have challenged certain of his “truths” or been able to “reason” with him?
Because time ran out it didn’t happen. I imagine he concluded either that I agreed with him or that he’d been sufficiently persuasive, got me to thinking as he did. But clearly minds did not change; they rarely do in such circumstances. Just how to bridge this great divide remains the supreme challenge of our day.