Thursday, July 12, 2012

Slice of Life

I am at the 7-11, running late for a meeting but wanting coffee nevertheless. I am tired. It is not yet ten in the morning and already the heat has hit 90.  Two Latino gentlemen are at the coffee bar. They are pouring endless little containers of Half and Half creamer into their cups, carefully stirring in multiple packs of the stuff that comes in the tiny yellow packets. This is serious business, requiring concentration. They are blocking the way, oblivious or perhaps not. Open container, pour, stir coffee, add sugar, taste, repeat.  They are talking loudly to one another, discussing either the wedding night of their friend Luis, or how to tune the carburetor of a 1984 Toyota. My Spanish, once Castilian, once almost fluent, can catch only words here and there. Then one of them makes a hand gesture obscene in 156 countries and I am pretty sure it’s not a carburetor they are alluding to.

The shorter of the two pretends to notice me for the first time. He is wearing stained painters’ pants and a faded blue t-shirt that reads Vagina Is for Lovers and I wonder if perhaps someone gave this to him when he first arrived here and didn’t let him in on the (bad) joke. He wears a thin wedding ring on his left hand. Is his wife in the US with him and if so, what does she think of the T-shirt? I’m pretty certain the word vagina is the same in English and Spanish.  He sizes me up.  I am much bigger, wider and older. No more than 15 seconds have gone by, an eternity of time in such a situation.

I address him with a small smile. He smiles back, nods his head as if we have reached a secret understanding, which perhaps we have, though I don’t know what the covenant might entail. I just want to some coffee, in spite of the heat.

Does the coffee/creamer/sweetener ritual bring them back to another time and another country? Do they have little white containers of non-dairy chemicals nd artificial sugar in El Salvador or Nicaragua? I imagine the coffee has to be better than the watery brew served by 7-11.

Both men get to the checkout counter with their coffees before I do, and both opt to purchase lottery tickets. They point to what they want, and the young man behind the cash register, a recently-arrived Pakistani, is confused. Do the customers want this ticket, or that one? The Latino men want both, it seems. The taller of the two lays a wrinkled $20 on the counter and points again, but the employee keeps giving them the wrong tickets. One of the Latino men—the shorter one with the vagina T-shirt, mutters maricon. This is a word I know (thank you, summer semester in Santander), and apparently the Pakistani knows it as well because he frowns, makes a hissing sound between his teeth and sweeps all the tickets off the counter and back into a glass case.  Vagina t-shirt looks as if he might hurl himself at the Pakistani, and just when I think this might get both ugly and interesting, a Falls Church police car pulls into a parking space fronting the store.

For the merest instant, I wonder if SeƱor T-Shirt will up the ante but his colleague grabs him by the arm and pulls him from the counter. The Falls Church cop enters and heads for the Slurpee machine. The T-shirt grabs the $20, and both abandon their coffees as they leave the store with false nonchalance. The cop, busy mixing pina-colada and sour cherry, has not noticed them. Or perhaps he has but decided a Slurpee on a steaming day is better than the enforcement of his nation’s misguided immigration policies.

All in all, perhaps two minutes-and-a-half have elapsed. Life in miniature.

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