“They wudn’t nobody in there what spoke English!” said the angry man. His female companion grunted assent. The man wore a crimson cap stitched with a white scripted Alabama “A,” the woman a similar t-shirt. I turned and watched as they stomped empty-handed to their car and drove away in a roar.
I had been walking into the K-Mart as they were storming out. This was at least a couple of decades ago, after Spanish-speaking immigrants had moved into—or “taken over,” according to some—several large, nearby apartment complexes. And the Alabama-capped man’s outburst reflected a growing sentiment: these people don’t belong here with us.
Once inside, I saw and heard what had incensed the guy: the place was thick with Hispanic customers, families mostly. Spanish-chattering kids running about, as kids do in a big box store, begging parents to buy stuff. An announcement burst over the P.A.—a blue light special, described first in English, then in Spanish.
I had dropped in to buy a couple of cans of spray paint. In the hardware department, another customer, a short, stocky fellow of dark-complexion in a bright-white t-shirt, approached and asked me in broken English if a cheaper brand of paint worked as well as a more expensive one.
I summoned the phrase I had used more than any in college Spanish class, “No lo sé.” [I don’t know.] The man grinned widely. “But,” I added, “We can ask this guy,” pointing to the hardware clerk. I presented the question. The clerk asked if the paint would be used indoors or outdoors. “Indoors,” said the customer, “for a bed uh…. a bed uh….” He spread his arms out. “Frame!” said the clerk and I at the same time. “Si!” chuckled the customer. [I’ve always loved charades!] Yes, the cheaper paint would work just fine.
As I left the store, I thought again of the man and woman who had stormed out. Why did they have to leave? Why couldn’t they have found and purchased what they came for? Was the sound of a different language, the sight of a “foreign” people, so despicable that they couldn’t think straight? And if so, why?
Suddenly I thought of that great American philosopher Elvis Presley. I imagined that the guy and his companion in the Alabama attire were at least a little bit fans of Elvis. (Most white folks in Bama attire are.) One of philosopher Presley’s wisest quotes is this: “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.”
Thank God for Elvis, I thought. And then, I have to confess, I said a little prayer—that the couple in the Bama get-up would stumble into a hornets nest of Grammar Nazis.