An Outside Plant
He had one plant, small.
I had three hanging baskets and two big ferns, fat.
He’d been there when I arrived, he and his wife wandering among the plants. It was mid-day Wednesday, no one else at the nursery. A young, spring day. The swarms of eager Memphians hadn’t yet descended on the unsuspecting begonias and geraniums. No one in sight. Except me. Him. His wife.
When I’d wrangled my ferns onto the cart, I pulled them behind me toward the checkout. The clerk was watering the hanging baskets. Earlier, I’d asked him where his ferns might be. He directed me to the back. He’d been nice, polite. Absolutely fine.
I pointed my cart toward the clerk’s row. In the meantime, the man had separated from his wife. He approached the clerk in front of me. He was older. I’m older, but he was older than me. Slight. African American.
He asked the clerk a question. The clerk asked him to repeat his question. “Indoor or out?” he asked, holding his plant with both hands. “Outdoor,” the clerk answered, curt. He looked over the man’s head. At me. Behind the man. He asked, “Are you ready to check out?”
The man said yes.
The clerk said no, I meant her. He put down his hose and moved to the checkout. He bypassed the man standing there, holding his plant. A yellow flower. In a yellow pot. With delicate buds about to open. The clerk was white. I am white. I’ve already told you the man’s race. His wife, now waiting at the checkout, was African American.
The clerk positioned himself behind the counter. He waited for me to step forward.
I’ve been at such a moment before. Many times. Mostly when the white clerk looks into a sea of waiting customers and picks me, the white face, out of the crowd. That strikes me as colorblindness, by which I mean the inability to see the people of color waiting. Focusing instead on the “important” person in the group. The white person. When that happens and I step aside for those there first, the clerk seems genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t know others had been there before me.
This was different. It wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was as if the clerk were angry at the man for something he had done to the clerk. Like showing up at the nursery wanting to buy his one small plant.
I said, “No.” I motioned to the couple. “They were here before me. Y’all go ahead.”
The man’s wife said, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” The man said, “We’re not in any hurry.” The clerk said nothing. The wife nodded at me to go ahead.
I bought my expensive plants. The clerk yakked the whole time he rang me up. Nervous, it seemed to me, flustered maybe ’cause I refused his offer of priority. When he finished my order, he turned to the couple. “Let me get her packed in the car, and I’ll be right with you.” He said it to the man, but it was like he was saying it for me: See? You’re wrong—I didn’t mean a thing in the world by it.
After the plants were securely in the car, I left. I did not see the clerk ring up the man’s flower. I hope the man went home and knelt in his yard and scooped up dirt and patted in his flower and now he’s sitting on his porch with his wife, waiting for it to grow. An outside plant. A tough plant. It’ll do fine in the Memphis sun, as long as the rest of us leave it alone.
This is a tough one. In hindsight you can think of many different redponses:
1) you could walk away, saying you changed your mind
2) you could ask to speak to the manager and then explain why overt discrimination upsets you.
3) you could make a scene and thereby make matters difficult for the African American customers
4) you could remind us, as you have done, that this kind of overt racism is far too common where we live.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
Yes, I wondered in retrospect if I did the right thing. But other responses risked making it about me, something I don’t like. So it is what it is. I chose sides, which was the best I could do at the moment.