When I was fifteen I knew that I wanted to get a job. I wanted to make my own money, buy things that my parents weren’t willing to pay for and just live life on my own terms. You might laugh just a little about this but it’s true. In doing this, I went to Hyvee to get a job and there, because of my overall optimism and appearance of happiness (and the fact that the job had “A Smile in Every Aisle” as their slogan), I got hired on the spot.
I loved the job, despite its location. I grew up in Missouri, on a block that was ghetto-adjacent, as we called it. In Kansas City, Missouri you might find it’s a smorgasbord of races, cultures, and relationships. However, just a hop – skip- and a jump across the state border (about ten minutes from my house) is Kansas.
In my own opinion, just across the way you might find yourself being called nigger (hard r) or being spat on. I knew this, when I got hired at Hyvee, however, I thought the grocery store was close enough to home to still be considered a safe space. It wasn’t. I can’t chronicle how many times I’d been racially attacked with verbal insults.
When I turned sixteen I was officially, and legally, allowed to become a cashier, instead of a stocker or sacker, and I was excited. I was filled with happiness at the fact that I could stay at the front, wouldn’t have to run back and forth, and when it was time for me to be off I could sign out without having to finish a checklist first.
That first day started more exciting than any other but by the end I was defeated, reduced to tears, and confused.
It was my birthday, I had waited so long for this and I’d demanded they put me on the schedule. I waited behind my register, having completed all training weeks before, tapping my fingers against the screen. A woman came up, four to five things in her cart, with a little boy about three years old sitting in the basket. The young boy looked so happy. He bounced with joy as they stopped before my register and I punched in my code, returning the mirth.
“It’s my birthday,” the boy told me proudly, puffing up his tiny chest. I grinned and leaned over the counter. Meeting his eye and giving a quick wink.
“It’s my birthday, too,” I all but whisper to him like it’s our little secret. He stood in the cart, putting his hands against the register and leaned toward me conspiratorially.
“Are you old?” I laugh hard and carefree, in the way only a teen can, and shake my head. I ring up the items and smile down at him, then tell him my age. His mother is standing there smiling softly, happy that he’d found a friend I’m sure.
As I punch at the buttons to finish the transaction a man came up behind her. I looked up with a ready smile until I saw the seething anger on his face. As if she could sense his presence, the woman took a step to the side, away from me. She seemed to shrink in on herself, her shoulders coming up, almost touching her ears. I looked between the two but neither spoke to me. I leaned forward stretching to grab at the item he purposefully put as far from me as possible. As I was at the Express register, I didn’t have a moving belt to help move product toward me.
“Don’t talk to her,” he spat out between tight lips, “she’s black.” I straightened so quickly my elbow hit the side of the register. My mouth snapped shut and I tried hard to keep the tears that immediately filled my eyes from falling. I looked at the man questioningly, at his hard eyes and his almost white lips. He stared back at me, daring, just daring me to say something.
I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was frozen in place. I watched as he used the tip of his finger to push the item, a pack of gum, closer to me. Then he looked down at the boy in the cart, who mirrored his mother. His tiny body shriveled to a far corner, around the bags I’d swung over the counter, legs pulled up, small eyes averted, his own lip quivering.
I looked at the woman but she didn’t look at me. She stared down at her feet, having stepped out of the way, again, so he could pay, her hands clasped together over her belly in submission. I wanted to speak, wanted to deny my blackness. I wanted to tell him I was ok, that I was a “good person”, but I couldn’t speak.
I looked at the boy again who peeked up at me from beneath long lowered lashes, his arms still crossed at the elbows, his hands grasping at his shoulders for comfort. He looked confused, sad, but I knew he truly didn’t understand. Then my chest tightened. I hurt for this little boy who would grow up with a racist father, a mother with no backbone, and fostered hate in his heart.
I felt sorry for him but, to be honest, I felt more sorry for myself.