Terry from Derry: Back to Back
By Terry Boyle
The holiday time is one of those times when life is stressful and people either moved to be more tolerant or impatient. For most of us, the whole lead-up to these events is less about celebration and more about how we can survive the constant reminder to be nice.
The other day I was at the supermarket. Since I’m prone to forgetting what I should buy and end up buying the thing that grabs my attention, it’s a marketplace that knows me as a frequent shopper. I tend to go early in the morning to avoid the queues at the register and any possible encounter with the person who is counting out the pennies one by one.
On this occasion, I was second in line at the register and pleased with myself that I’d actually purchased the things I set out to buy and not given into the many things I didn’t need but wanted. The Hispanic lady in front of me was definitely out in a holiday shop. She had enough in the cart to feed an army of hungry relatives.
I didn’t mind waiting, after all, I was next and I had less than ten items. Normally, there is a register to go to if you have a small bunch of items to buy, but it was so early, there was only one person at the register – it was a free for all, first come first serve.
When it came to my turn, the cashier, who knows me as one who shops there a lot, raced through the items and waited for my transaction. Searching my trouser pockets, I realized that I’d forgotten my wallet.
There was a line of people behind me, so the cashier said she would put the items aside and I’d pay for them when I returned with my wallet. It was an annoyance but nothing more and I made to go when the Hispanic lady stopped me in my tracks.
When she discovered my problem, she immediately wanted to pay for my groceries. I objected and thanked her for her kindness, but it was not necessary. She was insistent and I instructed the cashier to not take her money.
Making my way back to the house, which is only a ten-minute drive away, I discovered the wallet wasn’t in my trouser pocket but it in my coat pocket. Racing back to the shop, I found my groceries bagged and waiting for me. The generous lady refused my protest and bought the goods.
I was quite flabbergasted. I’ve never had this sort of thing happen to me before, and it’s hard to accept strangers’ kindness. On the way back home, my thoughts ran the gamut from being angry at myself and causing someone the inconvenience of paying, to how nice people can be when you don’t expect it.
Of course, as I stated earlier, my belief that I’d purchased everything I’d set out to buy was completely misleading. I’d forgotten a couple of things, so the next day, I was back at the store. I was hoping that if I went at the same time, I might meet the big-hearted one and pay her back. This time, I was third in line with my goods and the lady was nowhere to be seen. There were probably six of us in line.
This particular store is mainly frequented by Hispanics and the cultural mix is something that I love. At the back of the line was an older white couple who looked decidedly uncomfortable. They were probably visiting the area and unsure of where they were.
As we stood there, another cashier arrived and called me forward. I was wheeling my cart when the older couple at the back literally rushed in front of me. The complete lack of respect for those of us waiting was demonstrated in their rudeness.
Since I’m not exactly a shy and timid person, I made it clear that they were in fact quite ill-mannered. I turned to the Asian lady behind me and said, ‘that’s what you call privilege.’ I said it loud enough for the couple to hear me, hoping that they might engage with what they’d done, but they refused to look my way.
In my frustration, I turned again to the woman behind me and said, ‘I hate white people!’ She gave a look of bewilderment. Her confusion was understandable, since I’m as pale as you can get. I wanted to qualify my statement by adding, ‘I’m not white, I’m Irish,’ but I thought maybe that would be pushing the bounds of her reality too far.
In two days, I’d experienced a random act of kindness, followed by a random act of incivility. If the Asian lady was perplexed by the mad Irishman in front of her, the same Irishman was equally confused by what had happened.
I’ve often heard of the phrase, ‘white privilege,” but in fairness, I’ve never encountered it in my sixteen years of living in Chicago, at least not in such an ignorant way. It’s only since moving to the Coachella Valley in California that have witnessed this sort of behaviour towards other ethnicities.
I find this attitude abhorrent. It rankles against my innate sense of injustice. I’m reminded of what Roddy Doyle says in his novel The Commitments, ‘the Irish are the blacks of Europe.’
We might be the right colour here to be considered privileged, but Irish people should never forget what it’s like to be treated as second-class citizens. For centuries we’ve been treated as unsophisticated, and uncivilized. We have worked hard to make our place in the world, and, for the most part, it’s paid off.
Given the struggle we’ve had, it’s our responsibility to actively work against any tribe that seeks to lord it over another. When it comes to colour, creed, or gender, we are all equal in the sight of God, and that is how we should act.