I got racially slow-talked this morning for the first time in a long time. Things must be getting better in Utah County because it’s been years, but we’re not done with that stuff yet.
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Driving by a local grocery store, I notice they have a case lot sale happening on canned goods. I don’t really have the time, but there are a couple things we could stand to buy, so I figure I’ll pop in very quickly, pick up a few basics, and get back out.
One of the needed things happens to be ketchup for the kids. The sign showed a great price, but the display was shopped out and empty—though there was more well overhead on the top shelves, still boxed up. Problem was, a forklift or similar would be needed to get it down. I started to leave, but then stopped. I decided that maybe I could ask someone to get it down quickly, as there was just such a lift in the corner, not 30 feet away.
I asked an employee, a middle-aged white woman, for assistance.
“Excuse me, I’d like to buy a couple of bottles of ketchup, but the display is empty. I notice there are some cases of it on the top shelf up there. Do you think you could get some down for me?”
She eyeballed the displays and then pointed to the salsa display next to the empty ketchup display.
“There’s still salsa right there. How many do you need?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “ketchup. I need ketchup. There’s none left on the display pallet but I’d like to buy a couple of bottles at this price.”
This is where she got slow—and loud.
“THE … SALSA … IS … RIGHT … THERE .”
She walked to the stack of salsa bottles and picked a couple up.
“HOW … MANY … DO … YOU … WANT … ?”
My eyes were wide at this point, but I tried to make my point again.
“Not salsa. Ketchup.”
I pointed again to the cases on the top shelf that I was hoping someone would help me get down.
“Great, do you even speak any English?” she muttered under her breath, her face getting red and her expression suddenly looking aggressive and sour. She got even louder and slower.
“DO … YOU … NEED … HELP … IN … SPANISH … ? … ESS-PAAN-YOLE … ? ESS … PAAN … YOLE … ?”
“Lady,” I said, “you clearly missed the moment when I used English better than yours to ask for help with ketchup—”
At this point, a younger manager who had been nearby clearly felt embarrassed and nearly jumped in between us.
“Sorry about that, sir!” He turned to her. “The customer is looking for help with ketchup. It’s in top storage.” He turned back to me. “I’ll get that right down for you sir. We haven’t quite caught up yet with stocking. Sorry again!”
The woman turned to me with a mix of embarrassment and indignation on her face. Then back to him. Then back to me.
“I’m so sorry, sir!” she sputtered. “I honestly thought you were asking for salsa and just didn’t understand what I was saying. My apologies.” And then she turned to him again and said, gesturing toward me and without a hint of self-awareness, “I mean, it’s understandable, isn’t it?”
Slight digression: It’s not as though I was dressed in construction clothes (NOT that that should have mattered either). But I’m sitting here as I type appearing just as I was there— groomed, showered, hair combed, wearing a blue button-down shirt, new shiny Blundstones, and a Seiko automatic watch. I said not a word of Spanish. I barely know a word of Spanish. And of course there’s no reason that I should, necessarily, being half Chinese, half Caucasian as I am. What I presumably wasn’t, at least enough for her tastes, was white.
In the olden days I would have stayed around to say, “Lady, I ain’t even Latino. And your ears were trying to tell you what I was saying in plain English but your ‘illegal-alien-seeking’ brain was too busy trying to deport me back to Honduras to hear plain, uninflected, Utah born English from a professional writer talking to you about ketchup.”
But instead, I just waited for the young guy to hand me a couple of bottles after opening the box, took my ketchup, and went to pay.