Public Breakdown: Throwing Beer, Provoking Bitches and a Teenager

I’m in the shoe aisle at a Ross store on the cell phone with my daughter, who’s home alone on this Sunday afternoon. Do you need a new pair of tennis shoes? “No, that’s okay,” she says. “But, mom, something weird just happened.” I hear vulnerability in her voice, an emotion she rarely reveals, and I become apprehensive. I put a pair of red tennis shoes back on the shelf, and sit down on a fitting room bench to listen. By the end of her story, I’m alarmed at what could have been and relieved that she’s dodged one of life’s arbitrary bullets.

Nico, who is 17 and had spent the night at her friend Olivia’s house, was dropped off a few houses away from our house. As Nico walked on the sidewalk, a woman driving a dark blue VW bug pulled up along the street’s curb. The woman opened the car’s driver’s side door, and quickly stepped out. She then rushed around the back of her car, across the parkway, stomping towards Nico. The woman was holding a medium-sized paper coffee cup, yelling loudly and gesturing angrily. “You fucking bitches be provoking me!” she bellowed, looking at Nico, who had never seen the woman before that moment. When the woman was about three feet away from my daughter, she threw the contents of the coffee cup, which turned out to be beer, at Nico’s head. Nico turned away just in time so that the beer missed her face, but landed on the back of her head, and splashed down the back of her jacket. Her apparent goal accomplished, the woman stalked back to her car and drove away.

When I get home Nico says she’s okay, startled still, but all right. She’s a reticent girl, and not given to expressing emotions in conversation. To soothe my anxiety and think, I take our dog for a walk, taking my usual route which leads past a new low-income apartment building. Incredibly, I see a dark blue VW bug parked on the street outside the building. And there’s a woman sitting inside yelling loudly. Two teenage girls with backpacks walk by the car and the woman shouts at them. “Excuse me? Is there a problem?” one of the girls says defensively to the woman. The girls keep walking. I’d been behind the girls, and now I walk by. The woman is still yelling, but she appears to be talking into a phone. When I get home I describe the woman to Nico. She says it’s the same one who threw the beer.

The next day, the VW is still parked on the street and I write down its license plate. I had planned on filing a telephone police report that day, but Nico was in school until late afternoon, and when she got home she was sweating through an overdue Hamlet essay. I let it go.

My co-worker with whom I drive home everyday lives in a townhouse next to the new block-long 73-unit “affordable” apartment building. What was once an open field with a small used car lot on the corner is now Sherman Village, a $24 million, three-story development. (Two-bedroom apartments rent for as low as $559 a month, according to a state tax document). I admit my friend and I both felt some bitterness towards the building’s tenants. L.A. is an expensive place to live. We both work full-time jobs to pay the bills (as a single mother, she actually works two jobs to pay her rent). No one is cutting us any deals.

When people moved into the building last September, my friend predicted the tenants would soon destroy its pristine looks. I didn’t argue against the prediction. I had never seen such new and stately low-income housing. When I told friends about the beer-throwing incident and that it appeared the woman lived in the new low-income apartment building, they shook their head knowingly. The tenants were life’s rejects, they said. People who couldn’t make it on their own. I didn’t disagree. It was for prison paroles, recovering drug addicts, immigrants who “knew” how to play the public-housing game, or single moms living on their children’s welfare checks. In my own mind, I conjured up images of loitering young men in baggy pants and the building quickly being made ugly by rough and careless use. But none of this has come true. There’s not much going on when I pass the building except routine daily life. There’s no one hanging out, the sidewalks are clean, and the only loud sound is from the children using the playground. The city must be in deep need of these types of places. There’s a 1,200 person waiting list to get in.

I’m still not sure if the beer-throwing woman lived in the building or was visiting someone who did. I saw her again, though, a few weeks after I saw her shouting at the two teenage girls. This time, she was in one of the driveway entrances to the apartment building’s gated  parking. A boy, about 9 years old and dressed in a school uniform, had gotten out of her car. The parking lot gate, which is opened with a remote key, was still down. I don’t know if he went into the building alone and she left, or if he was going to get the gate opened. When I saw the blue VW bug it was usually parked on the street, but once I did see it in the parking lot.

Then one evening a week later, walking past the building I saw her VW bug parked on the street. She was not inside. What I saw on the car made me stop and take pictures. On the car’s back window, someone had used neon-colored window marker to write a personal and public message. A phrase that the beer-throwing woman had yelled at my daughter was written in the message. The sentences were legible, but they distinctly conveyed that the person who wrote them was in distress and not thinking clearly.

The message on the beer-throwing woman's car.

The message on the beer-throwing woman’s car.

The message is addressed to “Mike,” but his name is crossed out with an “X.” “Mike” is also written three times at the bottom, but, again, it’s crossed out. “You talk about Jeuses. So I know you talk about me. Keep on provoking me. You spend a lot of time fucking with me. Go take care of your kids. Lowlife. Get your life. B. Mind your own business it’s the best way Bitch. You mad. always Been. I’m not going to entertain you.”

Once at home, I look at the pictures, studying the writing on the car. This woman is mentally ill, I conclude. Prior to this, I had thought her assault on my daughter was due to drunkenness. When I saw her yelling at the teenage girls, I thought she was in the midst of a personal crisis. Now, I believed she had a drinking problem, was facing an ongoing personal crisis and had had a mental breakdown. The realization that this woman was seriously unbalanced, in addition to being drunk when she attacked my daughter terrified me – even more than I originally had been. I thought of the mentally ill woman who pushed a man in front of a train in New York. The thoughts of how bad the attack on Nico could have been nearly make my heart stop.

I thought about calling the building’s management to report the beer-throwing woman’s assault, and warn them that she’s acting bizarrely in public. But I don’t. Instead, I double my feelings of gratefulness that my daughter was not physically harmed. I touch her hair more often. I more frequently tell her and my husband that I love them.

It’s been almost two months since I saw the beer-throwing woman’s message scrawled on her car. I haven’t seen her or her VW bug since. I don’t know if she moved from the building, or if the people she may have been trying to see or knew moved from the building. I wonder if she is okay. I wonder if the boy that was with her that one day is safe.

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Criminal Behavior in Middle Age

Last month I was accused of shoplifting at Whole Foods on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. The organic-food grocery store is among a half-mile strip of newer upscale stores in a landscaped-and-water fountain area the local chamber of commerce bills as the “Tarzana Safari Walk.”  As I waited to pay for a cup of coffee at the Coffee & Juice Bar, a uniformed security guard stepped up to me. “Do you have a receipt for the items in your bag?”

My bag with groceries from Whole Foods.

My bag with groceries from Whole Foods.

Yes, I do, I said. Stepping out of line, I hoisted my bag of groceries atop an organic bread display. My receipt was at the bottom of the bag, underneath a box of veggie burgers, hair henna, a bag of granola and a six-pack of beer. I couldn’t reach the receipt. The guard stood by waiting. I put the bag on the floor, kneeling down as I desperately pawed through the goods to fish out a receipt. As soon as I touched my receipt, the guard issued a cheery, “Happy New Year’s dear lady, thank you so much.” I didn’t look at any of the other customers’ faces. I didn’t look at his. I walked away as if it was not unusual for me to be questioned by a store’s security guard.

Sitting in the store’s open seating area with my coffee, I wondered what had I done to arouse this man’s suspicions? What do shoplifters look like, act like? I told my niece via text that I was angry about the incident. But I realize now I hadn’t felt incensed, but only slightly embarrassed.

For about 15 minutes I watched the four cashier’s check out lines in front of me. Every customer I saw used a new paper bag to carry out their purchases – not one shopper had used a reusable grocery bag. Was I targeted by security because my stuff was in a reusable bag, therefore triggering mistrust? The organic-food chain store corporate philosophy touted “recycling and reuse,” therefore I had supposed customers shopped there because they, too, wanted to be good to the earth, small, local farmers and, of course, to their bodies (and shopping there comes with a free coat of morally superior sheen). I’d assumed that reusable bags were a given.

Or was I targeted because I looked Mexican, poor, shady? The only dark-skinned people I saw in the store were behind the butcher’s counter. I took an assessment of my clothing (jeans, a black turtleneck, a grey pea coat), concluding that I appeared as an average shopper. When I got home, I asked my teenage daughter who quickly squashed such an idea. “Do you think I looked out-of-place?” I asked. Without a pause, she replied, “You don’t look like a white lady in yoga pants, if that’s what you mean.” Oh. She continued, “You just look like a lady. You don’t look white, mom, as much as I know you’d like to think that.”

Bam! My thick, black, curly hair, tan skin and dark eyes gave me away again -  Mexican. I hadn’t been pulled up short like that in years. Sixteen years ago, I went to Macy’s to return baby pajamas I had received as a gift for my newborn daughter. There were two customers in line – a tall, blonde lady and me. She also was returning a piece of child’s clothing. The shop clerk spoke to her in a pleasant customer service voice, telling her it was no trouble that she didn’t have a receipt. The clerk politely handed the lady the cash value of her item and bid her good day. I then placed my gifted baby pajamas on the counter. The tags were attached, but I also had no receipt.

The clerk – tall, middle-aged white-appearing – told me no, she wouldn’t be able to help me because I had no receipt. I stared at her for a few seconds, then, thankfully found my balls, and pointed out that she had just conducted the same transaction for the customer before me. She didn’t say anything, but quickly swiped the pajamas off the counter, punched the register and then handed me some cash. Instead of a pleasant customer service face, she was scowling at me.

I left the store in a daze – not thinking clearly or taking in the sights around me. I found myself at a public phone near the mall’s entrance, dialing my sister’s phone number. When she answered, I got out a few sentences of my story, then I started crying. Sobbing. Hard. I don’t remember what my sister said, but just telling the story cleared my head. I was no longer stunned. I knew what had happened. I was treated differently because I was perceived as lesser-than because I was other than white. Once this thought clarified itself, I told my sister I knew what I had to do and hung up. I went upstairs to the Macy’s administrative offices. I asked for the manager. A few minutes later, an Asian woman came out to talk to me. I told her my story. She asked me to describe the clerk. “I know who it is,” she said, a hint in her voice that my complaint rang true. “I’ll talk to her right now. I’m sorry this happened.” She talked about “some employees at Macy’s not understanding some things.”  Now, I can see why she was the manager. I immediately felt soothed and understood. I went home, and I only think about the incident if something triggers a memory.

The Whole Foods shoplifting accusation could have had nothing to do with the brown shades of my ethnicity. But I’m hard pressed to think of a legitimate shoplifting crime profile that I fit as I stood in line with my paid-for groceries.

Judgment by ethnicity happens all the time. I’m lucky that I’m a middle-aged woman. Only occasionally do people suspect me of doing anything illicit. My friend Ron, a 22-year-old college student and afterschool coach at the elementary school where I work, is having a stressful go of it just getting to campus without getting a look-over by police. Since the killing of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary, either an armed police officer is on our campus or patrolling nearby. Twice as Ron approached the staff parking lot in his car, the assigned school officer has slowed his patrol car or stopped to check out Ron. The police officer just stares as Ron drives by. “What, I’m not allowed to drive to work now?” says Ron, who is tall, broad shouldered and wears his black hair close-cropped. I jokingly tell Ron not to make any sudden moves if the school police officer checks him out again. But it’s not funny. And if being stared at by a cop or stopped by a store security guard sounds like it would be no big deal to you, I’d bet you’re white.

Posted in aging, crime, culture, local, personal, random, shopping, society, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments