Maybe with the exception of Apple, I have a stronger love-hate relationship with Costco than any other American business. Nobody else has their incredible deals on so many different brand-name products — but most places don’t charge an admission fee to go shopping, either. Nobody else beats them for gas prices — but nobody makes you wait in line for 20 minutes to fill up. Nobody has a store brand selling so many different kinds of top-quality products at such generic-label prices — but nobody makes single people buy 96 ounces of mayonnaise to get the deal. Nobody else has been selling a slice of pizza bigger than your head for $2 since before the turn of the century. And there’s no downside to that.
Another great thing about Costco that never gets brought up: there’s no politics inside a Costco. We’re all there for one thing, to sacrifice half of our Sunday to get the best deals in town. Saving money is now one of the only things left to us that’s bigger than partisan differences. Inside a Costco, we’re all Americans. Until you snag that last sample almond cluster right in front of me, and then you’re the embodiment of true evil.
So I was standing in line at Costco, where most shoppers spend 75% of their time at Costco, and I saw a little boy climbing in and out of a shopping cart. Probably five or six years old. The line was going nowhere; he was a little boy of a certain age; he had to keep moving or he would explode. He was minding his own business, not bothering anyone, least of all me.
He had a very distinctive haircut, for a boy of a certain age. Shaved on both sides and in back, long and straight on the top, combed straight to the side and lying loose and flat. I’m sad to say it. The kid looked like he had been cast in a movie about neo-Nazis.
Standing in line at Costco, where I should have had my head buried in my phone like a normal person, I looked at a five-year-old kid and said to myself, “That kid’s dad is a white supremacist.” It was a shocking thought to me. Not only because he was a child, and people like me should allow him to exist outside of that world while he can. But mainly because there’s no politics in a Costco! This is a sacred temple of American consumerism, and there are ways to conduct yourself.
Then I saw his younger brother, only three years old, with the same haircut. Like it was a uniform. And I knew I was right.
So I looked for the parents. The mom looked like any white suburban mom. The dad had his hair shaved on all sides, long and straight on the top, pulled up into a topknot like a samurai. He was wearing a black t-shirt with a black-and-white image of an American flag, and white lettering that read, “When Guns Are Outlawed, I Will Be An Outlaw.”
I started watching him to see what else I could find out. Thought about maybe following them out to the parking lot to see if there was a Confederate flag on their truck. And that’s when things got confusing.
The guy was a young guy, somewhere between 25 and 30. He was making small talk with a middle-aged woman shopping by herself, clearly Latina, with an accent that suggested her first language was Spanish. She had paid a compliment to his kids, and he had accepted it.
His kids were handsome kids, I had to admit. They deserved the compliment. The guy accepted it with kindness in his eyes. There was no tightness in his face, or in his voice. No sign that he was the least bit uncomfortable in any way, talking to a person who probably should have triggered some kind of resentment on some level, in a true white supremacist. And the compliment wasn’t all they had to talk about. They kept moving on to other topics. The guy didn’t make any attempt to cut it short, nor any attempt to keep it going in order to show how he wasn’t prejudiced. He was just a friendly guy, being friendly to everyone. Completely at ease, nothing to hide.
His wife, same deal. The kids more or less took no notice of their parents’ new friend; they were too busy climbing on the cart. But there are certain things that kids don’t hide well. If they had been taught to distrust people with a different appearance, it would have showed up in their behavior, in one way or another.
Whatever else those two boys learned from their parents up to now, they had never learned hatred. My profile was totally wrong; I had to toss it out.
I still wonder why they went so far out of their way to make themselves look like racists. Most likely the guy was in a hardcore band, or was into some subculture I don’t know much about. The gun rights t-shirt might have been totally unrelated. Or maybe he was a member of some militia group that emphasizes military discipline but has nothing to do with organized racism.
That’s his business. But it made me think for a long time about the ways we commonly treat each other like objects instead of people, until the moment we actually speak to one another face to face. Imagine I had been talking to someone in front of me in my own line, and I had pointed out that kid and said, “I bet that kid’s father is a white supremacist.” A lot of people would have laughed, either appreciatively or nervously, but would have taken it as a joke. But the joke would have been at the family’s expense. If the parents had overheard that joke, they probably would have been hurt by it.
Not upset or offended, not outraged, not firing up a new Twitter post, but actually hurt. How could a stranger put some heavy shit like that on a child? What could possibly give me the right? That child is a human being and a person, with feelings and human dignity. But in the middle of a crowd, in a public place, a distance as small as 12 feet between them and me was enough for me to treat them all like a museum exhibit behind a wall of glass.
On the other hand, if I had been the one standing behind that family in line, it never would have occurred to me to make a joke like that. If I had so much as made eye contact with any member of that family, I never would have formed the thought. And if I had even just exchanged a simple greeting, it would have been enough to make me see them as individuals like me, people who like other people, people who like to chat and get along with their neighbors.
The middle-aged woman who was standing in their line was close enough to reach out and touch those kids with her hand. Close enough, as it turns out, to notice their good looks before she had time to form an assumption about their haircuts. But I wonder why you have to be that close to see a stranger’s humanity. It’s not like we all don’t telegraph it, in everything we do and say. Those kids love Costco as much as I do, I’m sure. And I know they were thinking exactly the same thing as I was, waiting in that line. They just wanted to get their hands on a slice of that pizza.