Before we get into specific lessons, I wanted to talk about an omen I experienced before I moved into E1V. I am not totally superstitious about these things, like I don’t think everything I hear or see is a secret message to me or anything like that, and part of me finds these little guideposts out in reality more in a fun way than in an ironclad message from God.
Sometimes though, things do seem to happen that immediately impact your state of mind, providing a solution or an ending to your current life and pushing you into following through on a decision you balk at making. And that happened to me while living in the Whiteaker, in a pretty conclusive way.
In the Whit (I really don’t like it much when people call the Whiteaker the Whit, but on the other hand I am a lazy typist, so it is a quandary. This is also why I drop a lot of articles in my sentences, which Grammarly never lets me forget, only now I don’t care. I have convinced myself it is my style.), for most of us, the street mentality is in full bloom, with all its watchfulness, suspicion, and intense emotion, and it certainly was for me.
And what happened was, one of the, in my little world, institutions that I counted on almost everyday suddenly became forbidden to me in a particularly nasty way, a way that made me think, “You think you are punishing me, the ultimate punishment, denying me your presence, when in fact you are doing me a big favor, pushing me to move from the anger and distrust of the streets, and onward to building community.”
It went down like this:
I was going to the local convenience store and all I wanted was some food courtesy of my EBT card, and some big dreams courtesy of a lottery ticket, this a few days before Christmas, and a few days later I got 86ed (kicked out for good) from the place, on Christmas day.
Covid has taken its toll on customer service just like it has on everything else, so to be real I don’t expect much, and often it seems like counterpeople and the like are on edge, always on the lookout to scold and correct customers, having forgotten completely about anything that would resemble helping customers.
So you take that into account.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, seeing everyone on the streets and off the streets kind of losing their s**t, I made a vow to myself that the most helpful thing I could do was to maintain my composure, to refrain from being the guy freaking out or talking to himself walking down the street.
So anyway, I go into this convenience store in the Whit which I won’t name but which you can probably guess and I am actually glad of that since they deserve it and I buy some food with my EBT card and ask for a lottery ticket.
When the machine is done charging for the food, I have to pay for the lottery ticket with cash, and I say, “I guess now I owe you some money.”
And that is my big mistake.
That is the unconscionable sentence which led to my fate.
The cashier is a young tough-looking guy I haven’t seen before, but he looks, let’s say, like he belongs in the neighborhood and probably enjoys a scrap from time to time.
Customer service personified.
He has a hostile look and a condescending manner, as in, let’s set this old codger straight, and he says, “You can’t buy a lottery ticket with food stamps.
I should say here that there is a peculiar facet of street culture that goes like this:
There is no objective reality at all. No world that exists beyond the demands and beliefs of the individual, and consequently people are completely unreachable on a reasonable level. Whoever is the most intimidating gets to decide what reality is. Fair discussions are out of the question. And this mentality is a low-level hum that frays the nerves and disturbs the sleep of anyone living that life.
I was living in a shelter and one day they were handing out sandwiches with the announcement that we should only take one so everyone would get one. The usual scrum resulted as we wade towards the table. After a moment, the sea of people parted when a massive dude both fat and muscular and at least a head taller than anyone pushed his way to the table and others slightly cowered if not cringed.
Reaching towards the table with one of his beefy hands, he grabbed about 5 sandwiches just with that one hand. He held the hand aloft, and instead of leaving, he stared at everyone and said:
“There, that’s one.”
Daring anyone to disagree. It wasn’t enough to break the rule, part of the mindset says that you not only have to disrespect people, but you also have to make them willing participants in their own humiliation.
You define reality.
No one said anything, and so he took his ‘one’ sandwich back to his chair.
This bit of background might make the cashier’s response to my simple acknowledgment that I owed him money make more sense to you.
He said, “You can’t pay for lottery tickets with food stamps.”
Because he wanted to correct and impose his will on a customer, that was his reality, so what the customer said had no bearing whatsoever. Who doesn’t like to correct people? Who doesn’t like to set a dummy straight?
The difference on the street is that if the dummy isn’t even being a dummy or doing anything wrong is irrelevant, what matters is how you want things to be, and you impose that reality on whoever is near. Your value comes from your ability to intimidate those around you in one way or another.
The only thing remotely dummy-ish about me at the moment was that I actually made an attempt to be understood.
Who knows why? Was I tired? Fed up?
Wanting a person working with the public to help a member of the public?
I don’t know.
I should have read his hostile body language and paid for my ticket and said nothing.
But I didn’t do that.
Instead, I go, “I’m not trying to. I just said now I owe you some money right?”
Now he is really annoyed.
Because if there is one thing he hates, I am imagining, it is a smart ass.
So now he is looking at me with open contempt, but I take stock of the situation, take out my debit card, and prepare to pay.
Now he says, “You can’t buy a lottery ticket with a credit card!”
See how it goes?
In his reality, I am a stupid old man who needs to be corrected constantly to prevent his stupidity, and because he is a tough-looking young dude, one who doesn’t mind a scrap, that IS reality. So having me proffer a counter-opinion is akin to having a wasp fly in the window of your car and correct your driving. It makes no sense on a deep level.
I think part of my problem is that I have worked service jobs myself, had at least some pride in doing a good job, and am a little miffed that someone in a service job is acting exactly how he would act on the street at 3 AM after a boozy night on the town. It is not his fault that he has incorrectly identified my debit card as a credit card, or incorrectly accused me of trying to use an EBT card to gamble.
It is my fault for giving him attitude.
Now I am frustrated, and my little cry from the heart, one that will enrage him, is this:
“Dude, I am just trying to buy something from you. Why are you making it so hard?’
At this point the situation is unrecoverable.
Now I am actually questioning his behavior. This is another verboten action in the street life universe. The strong get to do whatever they want, and are never at fault, and are always on the verge of being aggrieved and angry. Never mind that this might not be the best practice for an employee, it is the way of this world.
So he is seething now, and the look he gives me is worse than anything he has said, he is staring at me like he wants to jump over that counter and injure me in a way that I will carry for the rest of my days.
And I am too mad now to shut up myself. I just can’t accept that, bad as service has gotten in general recently, that there is someone working a counter who is actually making things up in order to be aggressive towards customers. Maybe it is a generation gap thing.
So I say, “Don’t look at me like that. You are supposed to be helping me, not talking down to me, you are making it really hard for me just to buy something.” Which he responds to with a bunch of self-serving-unrighteously-aggrieved bull-you-know-what.
And I finally say, “Fine. I don’t have to come here, you know? I can buy this stuff anywhere.” And I leave.
Now, on the streets, interactions like this are extremely common, with no one giving an inch, and everyone completely consumed with their own preferred reality, so there is a blow up and people walk their separate ways, isolated biological units at war with each other forever and ever, followed by a satanic amen.
(In my defense, I might add that there are SOME people who try to be reasonable, who try to look at things from the other’s point of view, and I am one of them. We get run over like pennies on a railroad track. Whoever said that whenever there is conflict, the truth is somewhere in the middle, is a superficial thinker who would rather comfort themselves with oversimplified maxims than actually figure anything out. Please don’t ask me what I really think.)
So I forgot all about it. Just another unhappy day in an unhappy life in an unhappy neighborhood.
But here’s the kicker. Something like a week later, on Christmas, I roll up to the convenience store to buy some homeless person thing, probably cigarette papers, and as I am heading to the store, the manager who is standing outside smoking, asks me to lift my mask, and immediately I sense what THIS is going to be about. So I play my part in the sad little soap opera that is about to unfold.
He says, “Oh. You’re the guy who doesn’t think he has to pay for his lottery tickets.”
Even his reality is skewed.
Seeing as how I never came into possession of a lottery ticket, it isn’t exactly correct to say I don’t want to pay for it. But of course what else is he going to say? My employee wouldn’t stop disrespecting you and you got tired of it and left? He has to convince himself I am the bad guy before he tells me I am not allowed back in his store.
See what a sad world this is?
And how draining it can be to the human soul day in and day out? Consensus is reached in only one way. One person imposes their will on the other, and the other slinks away, tail between legs.
And the killer is that this manager used to be a good guy. We used to hang out and chat. And over the course of 2020, the Covid year, I have watched him sour as a human being, becoming harsh and overbearing. We used to have laughs together and share Youtube videos. All of that is forgotten now. His righteousness flag is raised to its highest level. He is standing up for his workers and in order to do that, he has to demonize me, and then exercise the impressive power he wields as the manager of the chain convenience store in the worst neighborhood in Eugene.
Because he doesn’t realize that some victories are such sad victories, that winning them is worse than losing them, that winning them exposes the poverty of the spirit that now makes a home in you.
So I’m the guy who doesn’t want to pay for his lottery ticket.
Don Quixote that I am, and still remembering the guy I used to talk to, I make one last effort. I say, I say, “That’s not what happened. Do you want to know what happened?”
“I already know buddy. You can’t come here anymore.”
It would be reasonable to say that situations like this can kind of sum up the futility of the streets. I have been coming to this store for a decade, and I have interacted with this dude and all the other employees thousands of times without any problems whatsoever, and now none of that exists.
My history, the real history, is erased as firmly as it is in a George Orwell novel. As an older homeless dude once said to me:
“You can’t win for losing around here.”
So my parting comments are, “You know, you used to be a nice guy. And now you just treat everyone like crap. You don’t even know what your employee did, you know. Your employee is in the wrong. He was being very disrespectful. Why aren’t you even asking me what happened?”
To which he responds: “Off the Property.”
Did I say those were my parting comments? Well then these were my post-parting comments.
I am kind of railing at the futility of communicating at this place, in this neighborhood, with these people. And I also remember when he was an interesting thoughtful guy with a good sense of humor, and all I can think is how weak he is being, how willing he is to side with a new employee against a long-time customer.
It is like a breakdown in character. What if he had listened to what I had to say? Might it have led to a new understanding among all of us? Perhaps better relationships between people during a time that needs it. But no. He played to hero, resolute, standing up against the forces of evil.
So I say exactly what I am thinking as I walk away. I say, “This is really weak. You can’t even listen to me. You are scared to listen to me. You are standing up for a person who doesn’t belong behind a counter. Oh well, whatever. Merry Christmas.”
And I walk across the parking lot and away.
And I hear him say: “Get hit by a bus.”
Did I say those were my post-parting comments? Well these were post-post-parting comments.
I say, “This is just weak. Weak! I am mad at you because you’re being unfair, but I wish you Merry Christmas, and in response, you want me to die. Sorry, it’s just weak.”
And that interaction crystallized a couple things.
The first was, that all these people, especially the young ones, so full of life, good fighters, physically brave, are emotionally fragile and weak. Reality and all it entails is simply too scary for them to even contemplate, and they threaten people with violence and power to keep reality at bay.
And secondly, I realize that it is time to leave this place. There is nothing for me here anymore.
I have learned everything that I need to learn.
And any doubts I have about moving to E1V evaporate. Time to move on, to jump into the new. And that is what I have done, and, as I said before, I seldom look back. There is too much to do, to discover, and to learn. These bad memories flare up to be exorcised only when I sit down to write this blog.
As I walk across that parking lot, a part of me is offended, shaking a bit with anger, and another part just feels free, like I am closing the door on that part of life and moving on.
And so far, that omen has proven prescient.
Next post: More lessons from E1V. The Seven Habits of Highly Efficient Hobos.