Christmas shopping. I'm against it, personally. The hostility out there is incredible. It's a miracle more people don't kill each other outright at this time of year. They certainly seem to want to. I was in line coming across the TJ border into the U.S., a long freaking line, and I was behind a middle-aged woman with a huge plastic shopping bag who wanted to get to some store or other before closing at 5:00 p.m. (This was about 3.) I picked up from her machine-gun Spanish to her companion who was behind me that she needed a nativity set at this certain store. The nativity-seeking lady kept inching up alongside the person in front of her until she could usurp that spot in line. She did it several times, and each time the companion behind me (maybe her daughter) would ram her baby stroller into my heels as if to urge me forward or to step aside. If someone in line ahead would protest, they would be subjected to a stream of blistering español, replete with pinches and cabrónes and one puta.
After my heels had been chewed for the fourth or fifth time, I turned around to the young señora and suggested in English, "Why don't you use your child?" I indicated a little boy, about a year-and-a-half old, who seemed delighted at playing bumper heels. "Yeah," I went on, "Just pick him up and use him as a battering ram. He's having fun. You could butt me right behind the knees, and I'd go down like the feeble old gringo I am." I was assuming they didn't speak English, and I was right, but I did get some laughter in line from someone who did. Meanwhile, the older bird started quizzing her daughter, asking her if she knew what I was saying. My manner was quite pleasant.
"And you, ma'am. I'd suggest the use of your elbows to kind of plow 'em aside up there. And have you thought about getting a cane? You could whack a few opponents out before they knew what hit 'em and be on your way. No one would suspect a sweet and respectable matron like you of violence." I was beaming happily. To her, I figured, it looked as if I had just doted on the darling boy then complimented the beatific grandmother. She looked at me appraisingly. She had little to go on, but her low street cunning told her something was up. "You can trip 'em with a cane too. That way you get two or three places ahead with one shot. One goes down then, you know, it's like dominoes. You got a pileup, and you just do an end run around the whole mess. You save five, ten minutes in this line right there."
By this time she's figured she's getting her chain pulled, mostly because of this American behind laughing appreciatively and me eating it up. As if on cue, the boy in the tram starts bawling, and both women look at me as if it's unmistakably my fault. A conference takes place between a Mexican man about my age and the young mother. I get the feeling he's telling her the gist of what I have said. The line moves ahead and Dad (I'm figuring now) brushes his wife, mother, and kid past me saying only pendejo very quietly, inviting me to stop him. On top of this, I now realize the American chick is laughing at whatever someone is telling her on her cell phone and not my wit. I'm getting hard looks from others now too. I feel like a first-class smart ass.
An hour later, at my storage place, I confront the manager or whatever he is. I've figured this guy to be a former jailer, into a lot of keys on his belt, used to telling people what to do, and no matter what your sorry-assed brand of lip was, he was ready for it. He launched into a high-decibel lecture about my rent being overdue and it costing them money if your (that is, my) stuff goes up for auction. "You and every other knucklehead that comes in here think they can..." I was feeling abashed and repentant, self-chastised after my sarcastic hostility at the border, and was determined to disarm this guy and cool him out. I listened patiently, fascinated with the rules and deadlines, the complicated dynamics of public-storage work. Eventually he lowered his voice after I made him convince me it would not inconvenience his bookkeeper if I added $10 to the late fee. He almost smiled at the end, but it's not like he is a chick or gay or something.
Feeling in a small way redeemed for earlier sins, I stopped to pick up some hamburger at a market near my place. In the aisle along the butcher's counter I negotiated past several shoppers as I juggled ketchup, mayo, lettuce, buns, and toilet tissue. A very large man stood before me with no room on either side of him to pass. He was calling to his wife across the full length of the store to "Buy some damned collards, girl!"
"Excuse me," I said and made to edge past. He would not move but looked at me as if I were a talking dog that had somehow snuck into the store, a walking health department violation. His head was an ebony, scarred bowling ball on a giant fireplug of a body. He could crush me like a grape and looked for all the world as if he were considering it. "Excuse me," I repeated.
"Merry Christmas," he snorted and pushed past me, forcing me to flatten against the meat window.
"You too," I said after a moment and quickly wondered if I had just incited him to put my lights out. On the street, a neighbor yanked her five-year-old daughter's hand out of the bag of unwrapped, cheap Christmas gifts. I strained to hear the bones dislocating but didn't.
That night I dreamed of all of them showing up at the manger in Bethlehem with cheap gifts and a list of formal complaints against me. There was no infant in the makeshift crib. I awoke feeling depressed.
All that I just described took place within an hour and a half and with enough negative energy to light up, short out, and flame a fireproof Christmas tree into a smudge of smoldering carbon. Cool out. It's only Christmas.
And I'll try to curb my clever and mean-spirited tongue.