My mother had a delightful way of expressing dismay. She arched her lovely, fine eyebrows at the person whose comment or behavior displeased her. She would tilt her head slightly to the right, not at an adorable angle but a bit tensely, rigidly, holding it thusly poised. She remained silent while the object of her scorn squirmed, sputtered and slowly disintegrated into a quivering mass of apology.
Mom used this tactic on a variety of misdeeds: The teacher who marked her daughter’s cheek with a ballpoint pen for having poor penmanship; the nun who accused her sons of being Communist because they had long hair; the much-younger doctor who called her “babe”. For misbehaving children, the raised eyebrows sufficed: At the sight of them, we began apologizing like crazy and hastening to undo whatever folly we had undertaken. We much preferred her kinder, softer face.
Last night, my friend the incomparable Jennifer Helene Rosen and I went to The Legends. I had never been. She needed new running shoes and I needed the enjoyable time with a fierce and feisty woman twenty years my junior who nonetheless tolerates my clumsy self. We got the shoes, then went to T J Maxx.
I found a nice white top to go with a pair of pants that I’d purchased at The Gap, then trudged towards the front of the store. There, I found a “line” created by about fifty or sixty feet of shelving with random merchandise. Its purpose was to corral the crowds — and as one very tired disabled person, I stood looking at the impediment with mild horror. I could not see how to avoid walking more than a hundred feet — down, around, back to the far end again — and so I followed the required route to stand in front of the lone cashier who had not one other customer in front of her.
I asked her, “Did I really have to go that whole distance, just to get to you?” She looked at me without speaking. I tried again. “Could I have come around the front of that shelving, under the rail, and just come directly to you? I mean, I’m disabled, walking all that way was difficult and I couldn’t figure out how to get over that barricade. Do you let disabled people do that and if so, how do we get over that webbed railing?” She remained mute, looking at me seemingly without comprehension. Then she gave a little smirk and said, “Do you want to buy that top?”
I debated and then tried again. I asked her if there was some way that I could have moved the railing which barred direct access to her, due to my being disabled and the long walk being challenging especially after shopping for an hour. She laughed. Laughed. Then she said, “You can only cut ahead if there’s no one in line.”
I felt my mother’s spirit rise within me. Without conscious effort, my eyebrows rose as I said, “Surely you don’t discriminate against disabled people — surely you accommodate us.” My head tilted, my voice fell silent, and I felt The Look harden on my face. A minute passed, then two. The white top sat on the counter between us. Finally, I said in a barely audible voice, “There’s only one acceptable answer, ma’am, which is, Of course we do not discriminate, please, let us know what we can do to help you.”
And then the young woman — a girl, really, as Jenny Rosen pointed out later — sputtered, “Well, sure, ma’am, just come straight up next time, I’ll help you move that thing.” She gestured to the heavy stand with its barring canvas tape which would have been difficult for me to come around, under, or over. She shrugged and grabbed the item that I was no longer sure I really wanted. I paid for it nonetheless and moved away, mentioning to her that she ought to ask the manager to put up signage directing disabled persons around the barricade. She made no reply. Jenny and I left and navigated back to the car, with me muttering about what the heck did I think I was doing anyway, coming to a gigantic shopping center after a full day of work. Jenny Rosen took my package and helped me into the car.
We were halfway home before I realized that The Look, which I apparently inherited from my mother, is a form of complaint. Somehow, I did not care. For once, I felt my apparent transgression, though wildly ineffective, was completely justified. But then, I admit: I was really, really, tired; and maybe — just maybe — a deft use of non-violent communication might have done the job. But I’m no angel.