I’m learning how to watch again, 40 years later; watch here, watch there, all day long. Some of this watching is ordered by Ruth, my older sister, in shouted code. “Okay, Howie!” Ruth will bawl from the other side of the store, in Camping, over the wall to me in Clothing; and on the basis of that one cue, nothing more than “Okay, Howie,” I know immediately to keep an eye on whoever’s coming around the bend, whether it be a single person or a group of two or more.
Or, say I’m helping out in Camping, under Ruth’s supervision, and Ruth hollers out to me, “Howie, Line B!” That’s another code alert; there’s no “Line B.” She’s giving me warning to watch like a hawk the shady character I’m with on the floor, or moseying down the aisle toward me.
I’m learning from the queen of hawks. No one, not even Stan, our father, who at 87 is still running the show, carries vigilance to Ruth’s extreme, as Stan would be the first to admit. The other day, during a lull, I brought her a coffee from up the street, and as I was setting it down on the counter she tapped my wrist and motioned with her chin at someone passing behind me in the aisle. On turning my head I saw a young white woman pushing a stroller with nobody in it, and no little person scampering after. “Watch her,” Ruth said under her breath, following the woman’s back with her eyes. I trailed this lady all through Camping and then all over the floor in Clothing, pulling up when she pulled up and pushing on when she pushed on. I got to know the back of her well. Her hair was gathered in two thick braids, creating a part down the nape of her neck. The braid-ends draped the backs of her shoulders, each one bound with a piece of tape, like the butt of a braided rope. She clearly favored one of her legs, she dipped and bobbed as she moved along, and it made me wonder if her use of the stroller was simply to aid her in getting around and not to work some scam with the thing.
“She buy anything?” Ruth asked dryly when I finally reported the woman’s departure. “No, right? I’m not surprised. She was probably looking for a chance to steal. I’ve never seen her in here before, but I have a rule that I tell all the help. People who walk in pushing a stroller but don’t have a child sitting in that stroller, are up to no good and have to be watched. And don’t be fooled by people in wheelchairs—they’re no better than anyone else. I haven’t seen her in months and months, but there’s a woman we won’t allow to go past the front counter because she’s a thief. If she wants something badly enough, she has to wait in her wheelchair by the entrance while we go and get it for her. And then there’s the poor soul in a motorized wheelchair who looks like he has cerebral palsy. He has a board in front of him in case he wants to write things down, though I’ve never actually seen him use it. I’d say he’s in his 30s or 40s. He would come in and steal, and everybody hated him for that. And then if he was told to get out, he’d flip everybody off and knock everything down along the way with his wheelchair—boxes, barrels, hanging clothes. I learned from a cop one day that the guy’s name was Huey, and the next time he came in the store I said, ‘Come on, Huey, you gotta go.’ I think it unnerved him that we knew his name. He turned and went out. He’s tried to come in one other time since then, and again I said to him, ‘Huey, let’s go.’ He left without a struggle.”
Ruth broke off for a swallow of coffee and then went on with her training lesson. “My philosophy is, everyone who walks in the door is guilty until proven innocent. Of course, I have my trusted regulars, and tourists with children can be on their own and I don’t think twice about it. In fact, I’ll leave a family of tourists with some expensive Leatherman tools on the counter while I go help somebody else because I know they’re not going to steal; you just know it. But aside from them, everyone’s guilty and has to be watched upside down and sideways. And nobody ever really takes offense. Sometimes they do, and sure enough they’re ready to steal. ‘I’m not going to steal, ma’am.’ And Dad taught me this reply: ‘Well, I’m looking at you and I’m looking at everybody else.’ If they don’t like it, they can leave. Another philosophy I’ve developed is that if people act like thieves, they’re going to be treated like thieves. If it’s hot outside and a guy comes in with a big old heavy peacoat on, or he’s got it with him over his shoulder and all he’s wearing is an undershirt, chances are he’s going to try to steal and hide the item under his coat. So I tell this person right off the bat, ‘You have to leave your jacket up front.’ I don’t ask him, I tell him. And if he doesn’t like it, he can leave. I couldn’t care less. I used to shy away from confronting these guys, but I’ve come to realize over the years that we can’t afford, time-wise and energy-wise, to what I call babysit a customer, meaning we have to watch them all over the store. We don’t babysit. If someone walks in all drugged out or crazed-looking, as soon as they cross the threshold I’ll yell out real loud, ‘What do you need today?’ That puts them on the alert; they know that we know. And if one of them wants to see a knife, I always say, ‘You need to get a permit from City Hall.’ It’s not because I’m afraid of them; it’s because of what they might do with it once they leave. We don’t have any guarantees of what anybody’s going to do with a knife when they buy it. So I use that line about City Hall. Dad taught me that one, and it works like a charm. Some of them believe you, and some of them go, ‘What?’ I don’t answer them. I refuse to answer. And if I see one of our employees talking to a nut case, I’ll go like this”—Ruth drew a finger across her throat—“and I’ll keep on doing it until they see me and get the message: Don’t engage. Don’t talk to them. Let them ramble and let them go.”
She paused for another gulp of coffee before resuming in a lowered voice. “Here’s a little story for you out of the recent past. About two months ago, early in the morning, with nobody in the store except for Dad, Christian, and myself, this guy with bloodshot eyes comes in—or stumbles in, I ought to say; he’s either a druggie or an alcoholic—and goes right over to the leather jackets. And right away he bumps against them, a few of them fall, and he’s slow to react. But, you know, you can’t just think—Well, he doesn’t have money; I’m not going to bother with him. You really don’t know, most of the time. So we let him try on one of the leather jackets, and when he saw that Christian and I were right on top of him he put the jacket back on the rack and started walking around the store. At one point he tried on a plaid wool shirt jacket, but Christian was on one side and I was on the other, and again he hung the garment back up. He was very quiet. I should’ve got the message then that he was probably not going to buy anything, but I wasn’t quick enough. So then he goes over to my side where I have my Carhartt raingear, and one of the models has snaps that go all the way down—there’s no zipper. He puts it on and snaps it all the way up, and he’s acting like he’s either drunk or stoned or drugged or whatever. Christian is no longer with me. I’m standing behind the showcase and the front door on my side is propped open because it’s a beautiful day. And all of a sudden he bolts outside. So I ran after him and screamed out loud. I must have looked like a maniac. ‘You thief!’ I yelled. Nobody ever helps you. But he didn’t get far. He got a little ways past the smoke shop, and because it was snaps I ripped the garment right off his back. Literally. And I screamed at him, ‘You loser!’ It always makes me feel better. I have to say that. One of our female employees used to get upset at me for this. ‘Don’t say that, Ruth.’ But why would you even worry about that? Who cares?”
Ruth had one more lesson to impart. “The most important thing you need to know about thieves, whether it’s art work they’re stealing or a pair of socks—the bottom line is that thieves are stupid. They may get away with it once or twice, but for the most part the thieves we see are stupid. Years ago in the Chronicle there was a letter to the editor that began: ‘Never underestimate the stupidity of a thief.’ I couldn’t believe it. I actually looked at the writer’s name to see if he was an old employee of ours. Because he couldn’t have been more right. They are; they’re as stupid as can be. You’ll see for yourself in the days ahead. Even after we catch them, they come back and try again, thinking we don’t remember them. That’s where they’re stupid.”
All this time I’d held my tongue, but now at last I had to speak even as I sensed its futility. “With the store about to close,” I said, “you know and I know that we’re going to have truckloads of merchandise left on our hands by the end, and that we’ll have no choice but to donate all of it, or most of it, to charity. That being the case, would it really matter so much if somebody stole something? I’m only thinking of you and Dad. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend your last two weeks in the store without the constant need to watch?”
My proposal fizzled, as I had foreseen. Ruth gave a laugh and said, “I never thought of that.” Her voice had a note of finality as she added: “I still wouldn’t let them steal from us.” Later that night, as we left the store—Ruth and I and our elderly father, who shuffled along in between us—Ruth, who had him by the elbow, shouted above the din of the street, “Dad, did you hear what Howie said? Because we’ll have so much junk left at the end, we should just let the thieves take what they want.” My father gave me a dubious side-look from under the brim of his Kangol cap. “Good one, Howie!” Ruth called out over my father’s stooping shoulders.
“No,” she said to me later in the car. “As long as I have eyes in my head, I’ll never let them steal from us. Not even a 99-cent pair of shoelaces.”
She proved her words the very next day, and dragged me into the river with her. I was in Clothing when I heard her in Camping barking her head off at some intruder.
“Stop right there or I’ll call the police. You’re not allowed inside this store. I’m warning you—get out of here. I don’t have time to waste on losers.”
I hurried over to the camping side, but was unsure what to do on arriving. Framed in the door was a tall, thin black man, one foot in and one foot out, wearing a baseball cap turned sideways, its bill extended over his ear. A plain white t-shirt reaching to his knees hung down loose on his bony frame, like a too-big hospital gown. He waited out the wave of barking and the bluffing hand on the phone receiver with a sheepish smile pasted on his face. When his opening came, he pleaded his case with his arms spread wide in the open door.
“I’m not gonna steal nothing, Ruth. All I want is one of them navy-blue knitted caps. Look, see here, I got the money”—and reaching under the hem of his t-shirt, he pulled out from somewhere three crumpled dollar bills and held them out for Ruth to see.
Ruth only now became aware of me standing off to the side of the door. “Howie,” she called from behind the counter, “do me a favor and watch this guy while I go get him the cap he wants. He’s not allowed inside the store under any circumstances. You got that, mister?”—this to our guest. “I’ll get the cap you want, but you’ve got to stay right there in the doorway.”
Ruth came out from behind the counter and headed over to the clothing side. While shuffling past me, she snapped out an order. “I want you to stand right in front of him,” she said, and she gave me a push, a nudge, from behind.
According to Ruth, who filled me in later, our caller was a thief whose nickname (Goldilocks) derived from his penchant for bicycle locks—our top-of-the-line variety especially, an item we stow behind the counter. But even there it wasn’t safe from the tentacles of Goldilocks, whose every visit left us short exactly one unit, which no one ever saw going out the front door. The bleeding only stopped when Ruth banned him from the store, and since then Goldilocks had not been seen, apart from a sighting or two on the street. But now here he was at our front door again, with me assigned to keep him from entering.
I never saw this moment coming when I volunteered to help at the closing. I felt like a soldier holding down the fort. I fronted the stranger, blocking his way, our noses only inches apart. An acrid smell of stale tobacco wafted from his breath. But precisely because we stood so close, we avoided meeting the other’s eye. We were like two schoolboys left by their mothers in hopes of the young ones getting acquainted. We tapped our feet and looked at the ground. Neither one of us opened his mouth. When Ruth returned with the navy watchcap, I rejoiced in my heart to see her again; it was like one of the mothers coming to the rescue. And when the thief Goldilocks paid up and left, I rejoiced in my heart like a boy set free.
The worst part for me about our encounter was how it looked in racial terms: the black man barred from the store by “whitey.” It brought me back to my days on the job during my summers off from high school, when I’d be guarding the leather jackets—“watching the leather,” in my father’s phrase—and a gang of adolescent boys, four or five or six in number, would come bursting in with a whoop and a holler and charge up the aisle headed for the back, where I stood guarding the precious leather. All these noisy urchins were black. From behind his rolltop desk at the front, my father would rise with a look of concern and shoot me a signal the length of the floor, over the heads of the advancing marauders. His signal was a finger pointed at his eye—meaning, simply, Watch these kids. Or else he bellowed, “Howie, Line B!”—and only then did he point to his eye. But not every boy was fooled by his words. One day the leader of one of the gangs, on hearing the code phrase bellowed behind him, proceeded to take it up himself as he strode up the clothing aisle. “Howie, Line B!” he brayed. “Howie, Line B!” With his chest thrust out and his henchmen behind him—the foremost pair a step back on his flanks—he kept this chant up right on past me while I just stood there looking abashed, pressed back out of the way of the torrent.
My father’s signals caused me pain, pricked and stabbed my liberal conscience. As a 14-year-old high school freshman with dreams of a future career in law, I took Public Speaking with Miss LeFranc, and every speech I made in her class championed the Negro Cause, from the nameless toilers in the Underground Railroad to the valiant waves of Freedom Riders; from Joe Louis’ defeat of Max Schmeling in the ring to Jackie Robinson’s shakeup of Major League Baseball. My audience of classmates, all fellow white kids, listened politely in their seated rows as I decried the wicked ways of patriarchal white America from the Founding Fathers on. None of these classmates knew me at work. They would’ve been shocked if they could’ve seen me down at the store when the black kids invaded. I’d raise my chin in furtive reply to both my father’s warning signals, and by this action, however slight, aligned myself with the white oppressors.
Forty years later nothing has changed, as I discover with each new day. I still get nervous when called on to watch a person deemed a suspicious character, but especially so when the person is black. During my first days back on the job I kept my nervous condition in check, and all went smoothly, or smoothly enough. I watched discreetly, ruffling no feathers, and avoiding any shameful scenes. But that all changed with an incident in Clothing, one day after the Goldilocks visit. Ruth came padding over from Camping and called me up to the front for a word. As I approached, she pulled me to her and began to whisper into my ear.
“See the guy in the army jacket in the middle of the floor? You see him, right? I’m not going to point. The big guy in the green jacket with the matching green watchcap? I’m not so sure I like the way that jacket of his is hanging open. Do me a favor and watch him, will you? He’s been here before and I just don’t trust him.”
I spotted the kid in question at once. Among the customers scattered about, he alone was dressed in green; a big white fair-haired kid in his twenties with a wispy tuft suspended from his chin. He wore the watchcap high on his head, without the usual bottom fold. It stood up tall and drooped at the top in the rakish mode of a cockatoo’s crest. A fringe of whitish-yellow curls sprang from under the snug-fitting band.
Ruth, I knew, wouldn’t be happy unless I got right up on the kid. “Well,” I thought as I headed toward him, “at least he isn’t black.”
I walked on past the bank of showcases that line one side of the right-hand aisle. The kid was standing up to his shoulders in one of the cross-aisles formed by the racks. The green of his jacket blended in with the jungle colors of half our wares. He showed no reaction when I strolled up and stopped at the junction of both our aisles. His head was down, his back to the door; his hands were busy fondling a garment. My normal manner when approaching a customer is to make some courteous offer of assistance, but this time I said nothing at all. Instead I simply stood and watched him with a kind of brazen nonchalance, leaning back against a showcase, my elbows propped behind me on the glass. He had his whole right side to me; we stood just half a rack apart. He must’ve felt me crowding his space, but if he did he never let on. He was determined to act as if he was so without designs, he didn’t even notice me breathing down his neck. He went on methodically combing the racks, never so much as turning his head or flicking his eyes in my direction.
Piped-in music played in the background; a droning loop of golden oldies. Otherwise the only sound was the squeal of sliding metal hangers. But then a voice, an angry voice, obliterated these background noises. “Hey, man, I got the money!” this voice spouted out.
I looked up to see who was making this ruckus, and received a most unpleasant surprise. Past where the kid was standing, in the next aisle over, were two black males in their 30s or 40s who had come in together 10 minutes earlier. One was plump, the other thin. The plump one sported a light-brown derby that matched the shade of his light-brown coloring and whose brim was tilted back on his head. I’d noticed these two men roaming the aisles while I was up at the front with Ruth. Ruth, presumably, had seen them too, but it wasn’t them she’d assigned me to watch. If all right with her, they were all right with me, and I’d paid them no further mind after that—until I heard that brusque assertion. And then I saw it was the man in the derby, and his angry words were addressed to me. “I got the money!” he said again, spitting out the words; and just like that, as if by magic, a wad of cash appeared in his hand. With a sneer on his face, he raised this hand and flashed the wad of bills at me—the bills all neatly folded in two, showing the breeding of their present owner.
I grasped the reason for his outburst then. He thought I was watching him and his friend, when nothing could have been further from the truth.
“I’m not watching you,” I said. “I didn’t even see you there.”
The man in the derby snorted at this and waved a dismissive hand at me. The kid meanwhile had left off browsing and was looking from my accuser to me. He stood in our path, hemmed in between us, like some poor innocent caught in the crossfire. I appealed to the man in the derby again. “I’m not watching you,” I said, looking past the head of the kid.
“Cracker,” said the man in the derby, biting off the insult. “Goddamn cracker is what you are.”
At that point, if not sooner, I should’ve walked away. Turned my back on him without further comment. Hadn’t Ruth, in one of our sessions, preached the power of disengagement? But this good liberal was stung by the slur, and in my anguish I went too far. “I’m not watching you,” I blurted. “I’m watching him.” My actual words. And lest there be any confusion about it, I threw a meaningful nod at the kid, from whom I tried to hide the gesture but who certainly heard me, unless he was deaf.
I knew it was a mistake as soon as I said it; a panicked move of a rusty watcher. It was so outrageous that even the kid failed to take it in at first. When there was no immediate reaction—in the space of that brief moment—I found myself hoping, however absurdly, that my gaffe would somehow pass unnoticed; that the kid wouldn’t realize “him” meant him.
And then the realization hit, as how could it not?
“Who? Me?” the kid cried. “You talking about me? I don’t fucking believe this. Fuck that shit. You know how long I been shopping here, man? The old man knows me. His daughter, too. Ask them yourself if you don’t believe me. This used to be a good store. What the fuck happened? You got some nerve, man, talking that shit—accusing people for no good reason. Where’d you even come from? I never even seen you. If you got a problem with me, say it out loud. Let me hear it straight to my face.”
I gladly accepted the verbal assault in place of what he might’ve done. This time, instinctively, I followed Ruth’s advice. I made no answer; I let the kid bluster; and after a minute he edged away, muttering thickly into his collar, “I’ll kick your ass” and “Let’s take it outside.”
He cried bloody murder to my sister up front. Could she please explain to him what was going on? He’d shopped at Kaplan’s a thousand times and never had a problem before. He’d always shown respect to her and to everyone else who worked at the store and he had been treated with respect in return. She should tell the flunky working in back to be more careful when opening his mouth. You don’t go around insulting people, regular customers, for no good reason.
“You got that, Mr.Flunky?” he said with a backward glance in my direction. “I mean it,” he said. “I’ll kick his ass. Nobody talks to me like that.”
During his rant my sister’s voice made a kind of counterpoint, a steady burble over the menacing rumble underneath. “Come on now, young fellow, don’t be upset. I’m sure it was all a misunderstanding. I know, I know, but please don’t yell; it isn’t fair to the other customers. Now now now, come on, be good. I know you’re angry, but please let it go.”
And then it was over, the kid walked out, banging open the door to the street. All was suddenly quiet again. With his friend looking on, the man in the derby was holding up a shirt on a hanger and looking it over from top to bottom, his head to one side. It was hard to fit this quiet image with the angry man who had called me a cracker. The guy was clearly done with me, and to that extent I felt relieved, but was it worth the price I’d paid by antagonizing the kid?
At two o’clock Ruth called me over into Camping to spell her for a half hour while she went to lunch. We hadn’t yet talked about what happened in Clothing, and now as I faced her I braced for a grilling. But not one mention was made of the matter, as if for her it was no big deal; as if she’d already put it behind her. Instead she spent our minute together chattering about her beloved Giants and what a great season Bumgarner was having.
She then went off, lunch bag in hand, making her way to the back through Clothing and up the stairs to the mezzanine office. Neither one of us could have predicted what I was about to do in her absence. Left in charge of a deserted department at a sluggish time of the afternoon, I found myself vacantly gazing out the front window, watching the world go by on foot, when who should I see but the white kid again, his watchcap planted high on his head. He was standing quietly out of the stream with the morning’s Chronicle spread out before him on top of our curbside’s lone litter can. This can is a favorite resort of the locals, the hangers-on at the SRO’s, who regard it as a piece of outdoor furniture for their exclusive use and enjoyment. And so it was for the kid right now. His paper covered the metal lid, completely blocking the hole in the middle, and while I observed him no one with garbage dared disturb his cozy arrangement. He read with quiet concentration, as if at the library, his hand every now and then turning a page with fingers dabbed by a flick of the tongue.
Beneath his outward show of calm, I felt his wounded dignity. With him outside and Ruth upstairs, having her lunch in the mezzanine office, a crazy idea suddenly gripped my brain. Under the spell of this crazy idea, I tiptoed into the heart of Clothing, rummaged around for what I wanted, and crept up front with it past my father, who was busy gabbing with one of his regulars. I returned to Camping, where no one could see me, and from there pushed out the door to the street. The kid, who was still at the litter can, his head bent over the spread-open paper, visibly jumped when I threw down on top of it a brand-new nylon bomber jacket, the tags still dangling from the elastic waist—the very item he had been pawing when I had riled him up in Clothing. I gave him his second shock of the day. On looking up and seeing my face, he opened his mouth but nothing came out.
I lifted my voice. “It’s on the house.” I felt like a waiter serving a drink.
I left him there still gaping at me over the top of the litter can. I returned to the store, and once inside, resisted the urge, for one full minute, to peek out the window, in case he was watching.
One minute later, when I did finally peek, the kid was gone, and my offering with him.