I am taking the Aubrey inventory when a customer stomps into the store and shrieks. My instincts prepare for armed robbery. Soft tissue hardens.
But it’s a kid, 11 years old or so, black but not from the reservation, which in Southampton means he’s from the one not-so-nice area in town. That’s what the locals call it: not-so-nice. This kid takes up space when he walks, swings his arms and legs around, and his voice gives me shocks. “Get me something to drink,” he says, and his friend comes behind the register, and for a moment, I don’t rule out danger.
They hand me singles and say, “Give me a five.” Then they leave and come back with two fives and say, “Give me a ten.” They do this a few times, until I put a sign on the door saying I’ll be right back because I’ve got to pee. Before I can get to the bathroom the kid’s friend is pounding on the door, telling me to go get him a five for his singles. “Come inside,” I say.
"Take it," he says. "Gimme a minute."
I wait with the five until he comes inside. Yesterday I began leash-training my dog, making him walk beside me so he knows I’m the leader.
Outside the boys are collecting money for a sports team.
A customer comes in. He tells me about a documentary he made about a boy who went searching for his birth mom and found her on the street, homeless, in Philadelphia. “The boy is me,” he said, showing me a picture. “Here’s my mom after I moved her into my house.” She sits in front of a birthday cake.
The boy comes in again. “Give me a ten,” he says.
"Do me a favor," I say. "In five minutes you’re gonna come in with two tens for a twenty. It’s a waste of time. Come in when you’re all done, and I’ll give you whatever you need."
"Just give me a ten. It’s the last time."
I was about to when the man turns to the boy. “You’ve got a problem,” he says. “You force people to do what you want. Don’t do that. No one is going to respect you. Listen to what this girl said, and leave.”
I’m reminded of a story told at Yogaville: Swami Satchidananda, a teacher of yoga and a kind, peaceful, nonviolent lifestyle, shouted at a fellow passenger on the train. The guy had sat down next to the Swami, and that seat was already taken by the Swami’s friend. He refused to get up. So the Swami pulled down his brows and raised his voice, and threatened to hurt the passenger if he didn’t get up. The guy got up.
Swami Satchidananda put on anger, and after the man got up, he took it off. “Sometimes we must play a role to get something done,” he said later, having turned the story into parable about the freedom of detaching from emotions.
I was grateful that this customer showed me how to do that.
But my role is not to put people in their places. I don’t know what my role is, but it isn’t that.
I am something softer. Sometimes I’m so soft I can change my beliefs in seconds. The only thing I want to harden is my faith. No matter who I talk to, what people, what habits surround me, I want to have the strongest, steadiest faith that no one knows anything for sure - not the confident and loud-spoken, not the humble and intelligent, not the soft ones who believe in nothing but change. Not the boy with his bills nor the man with his scolding. Not me. Not you. In that not-knowing there’s all the room in the universe(s).
But this is not just about not-knowing. I want to keep my soft tissue soft and the one unmappable part of me hard. Above all, I want to believe in the unmappable part of me.
I like to think nights like tonight tenderize the meat on my bones, which though soft are not soft enough - and once I’m tender, my role will enter, and play me.