A peddler approached me in the grocery store parking lot this morning while I was lugging my purchases to the car. I briefly noticed her baggy coat, wrapped around her like a dingy comforter, before I lowered my head and stepped up the pace.
“Buon giorno, signora,” she said in a halting African accent.
I mumbled that I wasn’t interested as I shut my groceries in the trunk.
“Please, signora,” she persisted, holding out her wares.
“I’m not interested,” I reiterated, hurrying into the front seat before she had a chance to corner me.
As I was pulling the door shut, I caught one last sentence from her: “Thanks anyway, and have a good day.”
Something about her tone, the quiet defeat in it, made me look at her for the first time. She had turned away from me and was standing simply in the parking lot, a tier of mismatched wool hats the only buffer between her and the cold December drizzle. She was carrying an armful of cheap umbrellas and a package of men’s socks, and I wondered why I hadn’t even bothered to find out what she was selling before saying I wasn’t interested. It’s not that I needed a new umbrella, but it wouldn’t have hurt me to at least look at her earlier, to notice more than my own annoyance.
Now that I was noticing, her weary stance settled in my stomach like a rock. Her face was passive, but the way she stood like a forgotten monument, like a placeholder for someone else’s name, expressed more than words could have. I caught a glimpse of the woman beneath all the layers and of the dignity I had failed to acknowledge when she invaded my personal piece of parking lot. I felt like scum.
I wish-wish-wish it weren’t so instinctual for me to treat some people like I’m a superior being just because my husband’s income allows me to shop at the grocery store rather than peddle accessories outside. That has everything to do with privilege and nothing to do with betterness; my head knows this well, but the concept is taking time to soak into my reflexes. (Case in point: this post from a year and a half ago.) Of all the things I wish I could change about myself, this automatic discrimination ranks high.
I drove away without speaking to the woman again. I didn’t want to raise her hopes that I wanted to buy an umbrella after all, and I felt I had already missed my chance to do the right thing—to make eye contact, smile, treat her with respect. However, I did whisper how sorry as I was as I pulled out of the parking lot where she stood motionless in the rain. I’m letting that image of her, a woman like me holding umbrellas nobody wanted while the sky dripped unchecked on her face, rest heavily in my mind in the hopes that I’ll get a do-over some day… and that when I do, my instincts will be trumped by kindness.