For want of a Diet Coke
Copyright 2009: Jim Penny
Word count: 1849
Last August, I was working through a series of straightforward, but numerous, projects. The challenge was not in what I was doing, but in how much I was doing, finding time to thread all the activities in a 70-hour week and still find time to occasionally breathe, if not bathe. Fortunately, I could take advantage of flextime and telecommuting to make the work, and a small bit of life, efficient. Although going to the office is a necessary evil to maintain social networks with colleagues, it is also an extremely inefficient way to get things done. Add to that the ability to take advantage of occasional bouts of insomnia, and we have a recipe for expedient production when exact work hours and location are not a concern.
During the second Wednesday of that warm month, I found myself finishing one project about three hours ahead of schedule. At 2 p.m., I closed my computer, took a deep breath, and wondered what I might do with this little respite. Yes, I could start another project, and I knew I would soon enough, but I also knew that I needed a little reward. Oh, what to do?
Diet Coke! One of my many vices is the fountain Diet Coke, and the machine at the Shell station about a mile from my apartment called to me. It usually does once or twice a day. Besides, I knew I could press the button just so, and increase the amount of syrup mixed in the carbonated water. Off, I trot. Well, not literally. It was 85 degrees, and the AC in the car made a lot more sense.
I parked the car to the side of the station under the shade of an oak tree with picnic tables that are rarely used. I noodled across the parking lot with my Crocs skipping on the pavement, my blue parachute pants from Goodwill swishing one leg to the other, and my pink t-shirt sinking lower as it absorbed the sweat that was cascading from my chest.
I must have been quite the sight, but I know the store manager and most of the people who work there, and they probably couldn’t produce a green card among them all, so I doubt they’re going to say much about my clothes. Besides, they are good people who are glad to sell me a roller dog and Diet Coke, as I require. They also don’t mind selling me gas and candied peanuts either. They are very friendly and quick with a smile, which is likely due to the amount of business I do there, though I like to think it’s because I smile back.
All right. I have my 64-ounce Diet Coke in the white cup, if such a thing can be called a cup, with it’s red lettering announcing to the world that I’m drinking Coke of some description. The cup has a lid and a straw, but no ice; the Coke from the fountain is sufficiently cold as is, and it tastes better, which is something I picked up in Europe, The Netherlands to be precise. I generally hold the thing with two hands because it’s huge, heavy, and somewhat unwieldy. It is also precious to me.
I exit the store, holding the door as best I could for the person entering after me, and I walk across the parking lot lost in thought, detached from the tight focus of work, enjoying my Coke, and generally being happy being me. I am alone in that world, which is where I need to be that day.
A thread of reality pokes though my ear. Someone is yelling. They seem far away, then closer, and I slowly realize there’s more than one voice. However, I’m still mostly oblivious as I stand by my car, breathe the cool air under the oak tree, and sip the Diet Coke. Yet, the yelling continues and grows. I turn to scan the perimeter, thinking probably some friends are calling to one another.
Friends are not calling to me or anyone else. Oh no, friends are definitely not calling. What we have is a raggedy car, not that I’m in any position to pronounce another car raggedy, with three 30-something black men, sparse of tooth, rolling toward me, making various rude hand gestures, screaming “faggot,” and going into loud detail regarding what they were going to do with my faggot ass. Should I tell them the correct term is Dr. Faggot?
Maybe the rainbow sticker on the car set them off. Maybe it was the pink t-shirt. Surely it was not the Diet Coke. Regardless, I found myself wondering why they were calling me a faggot when they have surely been called nigger themselves. Did they learn nothing then, and more to the point, why are they upset? Is it the Diet Coke? Did they think my careful handling of the cup was a come-on?
I detached from the moment and reviewed my situation. They continued to roll toward me, yelling with even more vigor, anger, and hate. I placed the Coke on the hood of the car, and then wished I had already unlocked the door. I do not keep firearms around me anymore because of the way American society indicts the user of a firearm regardless of the situation. However, I do keep edged weapons, ax handles, and hammer handles nearby, figuring that if I popped someone with a handmade oak ax handle, the press might be a little easier on me before I got to trial.
There is no time to fumble with the car keys, and I don’t even try because doing so might incite these men, if men is the appropriate appellation, further. I also feel no need to run, though I do know for a distinct recognized-at-that-moment fact that if they had firearms, I was already dead.
What these gentlemen did not know is that some 25 years ago, I took a week off from work to write parts of a dissertation that I later dumped in the trash. The thump resounded through the dumpster. During that week, I went for lunch at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant every day. Mama Ly cooked for me and me alone, or so it seemed. This restaurant was located in a bad section of town, probably because the rent was cheap, and Mama Ly with her daughters served hotdogs in addition to the best chicken curry you will ever experience.
On the Thursday of that week, I was sitting at the round table in the second room all by myself. I arrived late to avoid the usual university crowd, most of whom I knew well enough to want to avoid during my erstwhile vacay. As I worked on my rice and thought about the failing dissertation, I started to hear angry conversation in the other room, the room with the checkout table. Two men were refusing to pay for their hotdogs, not because there was a problem with the dogs, but because the men were bullies, sort of like the grown version of those idiots who populated my grade school.
The argument escalated, and I half expected to witness some version of a Bruce Lee movie, but all I saw through my diverted eyes was the grinning men walking out the door and down the street with four hot dogs while the ladies shouted something probably derogatory in their native language, though one did find enough English to pronounce the men stupid.
I finished my lunch in silence, left enough extra tip to cover the dogs, and went home deep in thought, but not about the dissertation. Why had I chosen to do nothing but sit there? The truth devastated me. I made the decision to do nothing not because there was nothing to do, but because there was nothing I could do. The next day, I enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do studio. A very few years later, I held the black belt. A few years after that, I changed schools to follow the teacher I liked best. To this day, I still train.
This, my 30-something men in the raggedy car did not know, not that I’ve ever thought of myself as a badass or street fighter. In fact, I’m very sure I’m not because I know a few who are, and they really are. Only three times have I had to use what I’ve learned. Twice, once in Montreal and another in New Orleans, I encouraged a couple of gentlemen to sit down on the sidewalk. They did so without complaint. Once, a pair of football players wanted my coffee money in an alley at 8:30 p.m. They didn’t get it.
With my Diet Coke on the hood of the locked car, I turned to face the men. They continued to approach, yelling louder, gesturing harder. No weapon was in sight. Time stopped. My senses expanded and touched everything in the parking lot. I felt the bark under the sparrow’s feet above my head in the tree. I tasted the blade of grass in the grasshopper’s mouth below the tree. I heard the carbonation bubbles breaking in the Coke behind me.
There was no time. There was infinite connection. These men were about to hurt to the degree they required to disengage. However, there was no gloat in that thought. There was no satisfaction of coming punishment. There was simple causation. They would act, and I would react. The moment lasted somewhere between one second and one year, and the car sped away, the men still yelling, still gesturing, still hating what they did not understand.
There was no fear in this moment. It was simply and timeless matter of fact. Shortly afterward, I took my Coke, got into the car, and drove away for an errand, which I accomplished in a robotic manner. I returned home about an hour later with the plan of finishing a brief work task. As I sat on the couch, my computer on my lap, I realized what had happened, that I wasn’t going to work any more that day, and that I needed to thank those idiots once I calmed down.
Why? Because they reminded me that the one thing I needed was still there, despite the neglect, despite the people telling me to forget it. However, it took me the better part of 24 hours in Marine-issue jungle boots to calm down and realize all that.
The thing is that these men were alarmed over something, something that I don’t specifically know about, and something that they surely do not understand. Rather than deal with their own problem, they chose to make their problem my problem, and they succeeded for a while, though the end was not what they might have expected. Did they leave because of something I did? I doubt it. More likely, they were cowards as all bullies are, and when they thought I was afraid of them, they left.
However, they did not leave me unchanged; they left me stronger, and I must thank them for that.