Last Saturday I was confident I was playing last-minute Christmas shopping smart. First, I was going out in the morning, not later in the day when desperation levels rose exponentially; I was going to one store, not a mall; and the store was close by, walking distance of my house. I had to be at a Hannukah gathering at 1 p.m. in Malibu, but that didn't bother me either. If things didn't work out and I didn't find the right stuff, I could bail on the enterprise and be home in a few minutes. It was one of those rare moments in which my community actually felt workable and self-contained in a good way. It was giving me exactly what I needed.
Predictably, I had no problem finding stuff at Burlington Coat Factory, one of those big discount retailers with just enough organization and presentation to make you feel you're at a real department store. The checkout line was a different story; it had to be a quarter mile long. Instead of panicking, I settled in for the wait. I had plenty of time still.
The good news was that everyone in line had the same air of forbearance. People leaned patiently on their baskets or idly browsed shelves near them to pass the time or to pick up gifts they hadn't thought of yet. I chatted with the man behind me who wasn't thrilled about the line but was pleased it was moving so fast. What efficiency! The collective calm reinforced my sense of Inglewood community goodwill: we were all in this wait together, working it out for the good of the holiday and for each other. A Burlington employee in a red Santa cap came around with a plate of chocolate mints meant to soothe customer irritation, but absent that irritation the gesture looked like a real amenity that Inglewood shoppers rarely get--that Macy's shoppers rarely get. I was almost having a good time.
And then I heard the man behind me, the one I'd been chatting so comfortably with, say in a low, menacing tone: "Wait a minute! How did you get in front of me? Hell no, no way. Get back--in back of me. Here, aqui."
I turned and saw he was gesturing to a woman who had been in front of me for the last thirty minutes. She'd stepped out of line to get something off one of those shelves, a last-minute gift, and come back. But she got in back of me instead of in front, and wound up in front of the man. She was Latino, he was black. It had taken him about ten minutes to realize what had happened -- if you can say anything actually happened -- and when he did, the air of goodwill vanished like so much morning fog under a hot midday sun.
I froze. The man was glaring, waiting. I should have said something, of course, explained that the woman had simply mistaken her original place in line. No big deal. It was not racial one-upsmanship or racial place-taking, it was human, it was entirely innocent...
The words stuck in my throat. Courage or simple courtesy failed me; the truth is, I didn't want to step into the narrative of resentment that the man had suddenly constructed around this fellow shopper, who was looking very taken aback. I understood the narrative very well, frankly empathized with it in the big picture of black displacement that was so little understood or even acknowledged in Inglewood or anywhere else. But this moment was not an example of that displacement. This man was misinterpreting it all, maybe deliberately, in the process undermining all of us who were standing in line enjoying a shared experience, meaningless and illusory perhaps, but a valuable experience nonetheless. Undermining it on Christmas Eve, of all days.
I continued to say nothing. Without a word, the Latino woman got in back of the black man with the basket, hugging her items close to her chest as if they might be stolen. The man looked satisfied, though not happy. The people behind him were Latino and accepted the woman into their midst almost eagerly, with a sense of relief. She was safe. Disaster averted. Business as usual.
I made it home in time, as I thought I would. But the magic of the morning, which turned out to be bright and summer-like and almost fantastical, was gone.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.