You don’t have to look far these days to find plenty of examples of Karens and Kens throwing their weight around in public. I’ve even seen them out in the wild, usually after someone confronts them about the lack of a mask in a store where it’s required. There is generally some shouting, maybe some throwing of things and then a dramatic-but-hasty departure. Witnesses shake their heads and wonder how it came to this.
I’ve found myself thinking about how to handle a confrontation over our new normal, especially since a maskless jerk who seemed to think he was funny crowded my mom in the grocery store.
And now I know.
Just a little while ago, I was checking out at the little Giant Eagle store in our neighborhood. The woman running the register is one of my favorite people there, always chatty and friendly while customers unload their carts. I held out my phone so she could scan my loyalty card barcode and then stepped back to the end of the belt to pay with my card.
And there’s a guy standing there. Already unloading his stuff. Standing right in front of the card reader. I said, “Sir, could you please back up? I’ll pay real quick and be out of your way.”
He stepped to the back of the belt, but went no further.
“Sir, could you please back up to the sign on the floor so I can pay?”
He says he doesn’t need to back up any further.
I now notice he’s not wearing his mask; he’s just holding it up over his mouth. And, because my brain works like it does, I also notice that he looks an awful lot like the late pro wrestling manager Bobby Heenan, but with a cut-off t-shirt instead of the satin jacket.
I am no longer being polite. Or quiet. “Back up. And put on your mask.”
The woman checking me out is now no longer behind the register; she’s standing next to the guy, asking him to move back. At this point she’s the reasonable one, saying if he could just back up for a minute, she’d get him checked out right away.
He says, to her and to me, that he doesn’t have to back up. There is now a lot of shouting. He pretends to swing at me once, after I asked him what was so fucking hard about this whole thing. He is red in the face (I probably was too) and telling me he’s going to break my jaw.
I made one mistake. I tossed his gallon jug of iced tea back in his cart. It came open, and poured out on the floor. He sensed that this was an opening, because he immediately started to shout about me assaulting him. “He ripped off my mask! He shoved me! Did you see it? Someone call the cops!”
A couple employees show up with mops, and they move his cart back — way back — and begin to clean up the iced tea. Another employee said the police were on their way. He stepped up to me one last time. “You’re going to jail, asshole. I guarantee it.”
I laughed. “You know the cops are going to ask other people what happened, right? Lying to a cop is a really bad idea.”
We’re now separated. I paid and moved my cart over to the service desk. The woman who checked me out — she is also the front of house manager — says to me, quietly, “Don’t worry, sweetie — I’ll tell the police exactly what happened.” And I apologized to her, repeatedly, for the scene and for spilling the dude’s iced tea on the floor.
He practically sprinted out of the store, still making cartoonish gestures at me, when the police arrived. I thanked the manager one more time for her support and understanding and stepped outside, away from Mr. Heenan. I told one officer what happened while the other officer spoke to the guy. When the second officer came over to me, I learned that the story had apparently changed back to something close to reality — no mentions of assault or vicious mask removal. The second cop made sure I wasn’t parked near my friend. Then smiled, shook his head and said to have a nice night.
But I haven’t had a nice night. It’s nearly two hours later, and the adrenaline is still pumping. I still feel guilty about causing a problem for the people who work in the store — they shouldn’t have to be the ones to deal with shit like this. I’ve gone over — and over and over — the confrontation in my head, and I don’t think I’d do anything differently — except for the iced tea thing — if this happens again.
Or, maybe, when it happens again.
That’s the thing I don’t get. Why did this happen? Did the guy come in the store thinking he was going to pick a fight with someone? Was he just having a bad day? And even if the latter is the case, what is so hard about being respectful? Or even just tolerant? I mean, I was literally 60 seconds away from walking my cart out to the car. I wouldn’t think twice about taking a step back to let someone finish up their purchase. I go back to the question in the first paragraph: How did we get here?
And more importantly: Can we please go back?