Sunday, July 28, 2013

I Am The United States Marine Corps

I need to write this down so I remember it.

I need to write this down so I can begin to forget it.

I need to write this down so I can understand it.

This actually happened.

She: relaxed, cute, articulate. She asks me for a brewed coffee. I treat her with the deference she deserves: a polite customer ordering a simple drink. I meet her eyes and smile, then break off after no more than a few seconds. Look at customers too long and they get uncomfortable.

He: clothed in dull red shorts and, incongruously, a red sweater, white-bearded, stooped. He lurches from the right into my field of vision. I look in his direction. He is no customer. I see them a lot: the ones who come in to day-drink at one of the bars in the building. As a matter of course I nod mildly at him.

He stops, turns, moves toward the counter. Perhaps I was wrong? No: "Can I just smell the flowers once?" He gestures at the vase of zinnias. I nod. He eases into her personal space. Elastically she shifts away from him, imperceptibly re-establishing her bubble.

He sniffs the flowers perfunctorily. Turns to her: "do you like how they smell?" She could be his daughter. She says, "I haven't smelled them yet."

"United States Marine Corps," he says to her. "That's me. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I make some motion, because his attention shifts momentarily, grudgingly, to me. He holds out his hand to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps." I take his hand; it has that banded wiriness of muscle built long ago. He squeezes my hand.

Then he's back to my customer. "You should smell those flowers." He moves his arm up and touches her back. It is a strange touch; familiar suggesting intimacy, or the proposal of intimacy, but brief suggesting camaraderie. He does not clap her on the back. He does not trace her shoulderblade. He touches, and then his hand drops.

Now she steps away from him. "You take care of your business now," he says to her, and she just nods. I watch, frozen. He turns back to me. "I'm the United States Marine Corps. You take care of your business now," to me. I nod too, with false cheer. "I sure will!" I chirp. He's moving away from us. I almost dare to breathe again, when he stops and turns back.

"I fought in the war," he says. "I fought overseas, in the war. I'm the United States Marine Corps." I nod again. "You take care of your business now," he says. "I take care of my business. I can prove it. You want me to prove it? I got my shotgun in the truck."

I swallow something in my throat. I manage to shake my head. "That's all right. I believe you."

He steps back toward us, and despair rises like my gorge. But he only wants to repeat the importance of taking care of our business. "I will, I will," I say. I hope my growing panic doesn't sound in my voice. "Have a good night, sir."

"Take care of your business," and then he is out the door. I see him talking to someone outside--another innocent buttonholed? but no, it is his female doppelgänger, and his body language tells me she and he are together. I am mildly surprised that he should have someone, anyone.

I turn back to my customer. Still cute, no longer relaxed. I lean across the counter, attempt to re-establish that rapport which so often leads to a dollar tip in the jar. "I am so sorry about that," I say. Then I realize what I have said.

She shakes her head, hands me her money, takes her coffee, walks away. Not another word. No tip, no smile, no connection. A repeat customer slipped through my fingers. And why did I apologize for that man, for the United States Marine Corps?

I go into the kitchen and breathe great deep shocked breaths until I have calmed myself. Then I return to my counter to smile, to banter, to serve, and, it seems, to apologize.

Long live solubility.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Talking Into Thin Air

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest, killing him.

On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.

On July 13, 2013, a six-person jury found Zimmerman not guilty on all counts.

Today, I read an intriguing op-ed on, discussing whether the US justice system has failed African-Americans. It draws a connection between Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird and the decision of the court in the Zimmerman case. Austin-Hillery's thesis is persuasive, because her research is sound, and her insights are worthwhile.

Reading her column, and scrolling through tweets and posts on Facebook over the last two days, I realized why the debate over the case has raged so viciously. Some praise the rule of law--"they had to acquit, given the evidence"--and others condemn the unfairness of Florida (and, indeed, more broadly, American) procedure--"and yet this woman gets 20 years!" And the two sides talk past each other, as is so often the case. They fail to realize that their conception of What Courts Do is different.

Many--Austin-Hillery among them--believe that the legal system has a responsibility to discover, implement, and enact justice. With Atticus Finch, they call for a morally/socially responsible judiciary, one that sees to the heart of cases and determines what is right. (The complexities surrounding that word are too great to contain in one blog post, perhaps, so we will leave it alone.) In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions perpetuate a historical precedent of white prejudice in the legal system.

Others see America's justice system as interpretive, translating the laws created by legislature and enforcing them in individual cases. They expect a passive judiciary, neither imposing its will on other branches of government nor seeking anything more than a formulaic comparison of evidence and case to precedent and statute. In their eyes, the 18th Circuit Court's response to Zimmerman's actions was its only possible response.

The former group seeks a possibly unattainable ideal--the enacting of Real Justice. The latter group seeks a probably heartless result--the precise interpretation of the Law of the Land.

I don't know where I fall. Except this: we humans have major issues. We think ill of each other, we speak ill of each other, we hate each other, sometimes we kill each other. We may not be as violent as George Zimmerman, or as equipped for violence, but we enact emotional violence in our hearts every day--to that moron who just cut us off in traffic, to that terrible customer who sends back his entrée four times because it's not hot enough, to the colleague or coworker or classmate or friend or enemy who gossips about our personal shortcomings. Humankind is a mess. Expecting some kind of silver out of that dross--whether the silver of real justice or the silver of precise interpretation--may be an exercise in futility.

Now I'm depressed.

Long live careful consideration.