Summer Skelter in the Burbs

utrecht photographer; utrecht photography; netherlands

Most people lead full and happy lives without ever having their cat litter stolen from them.  While I can’t imagine that there are many legitimate motives for this sort of crime, I’ve had mine stolen twice.  This statistic no doubt puts me in some kind of exclusive class, which incidentally, is what this story is actually about.

The first time that I had my cat litter stolen from me was back in the early 1980s.  I admit that through a series of bad choices I made that day I was particularly vulnerable to this type of attack.  My defenses were down, and my mind was not exactly on High Alert for what happened next.

It was an uncomfortably hot and slow summer day.  A deep blue sky was thrown into high contrast by huge white cumulus clouds making it exceptionally picturesque.  A perfect day I thought, to enjoy a little THC.  This was lazy and idyllic suburban living at its best, as defined by many teenagers in the 1980s.  With our mother working and my sister away, my brother and I had the house to ourselves.  We were both home from college and were enjoying our downtime.  Our mother’s one request before leaving that morning was that we pick up some groceries and grab a pizza for the family’s dinner.  A grocery list was made and affixed to the refrigerator with a magnet.  Pizza, to anyone who lived in Southern Westchester County in New York, meant Sal’s in Mamaroneck.  It was in the next town over and well worth the extra couple of miles drive.

After spending the day listening to music and relaxing on the screened porch, guilt, (and the munchies), became our imperative to get out of the house. It was 5:00 pm and our mother would be home any time now.  We hadn’t done anything productive since she left that morning.

My brother drove.  We were dressed in our Westchester County standard-issue pastel colored polo shirts, shorts, and sneakers and looked like every other person in that town.  While I knew that our family had a certain amount of privilege, we weren’t considered to be comparatively rich in that area.  We were lucky to live in that town at that time in our lives.

When my parents moved to Larchmont just after I was born, they bought the least expensive house in the whole town.  We had moved up the ladder from there, but still required loans for college.   All told, we certainly had more opportunities than most because of these advantages.  I had yet to travel anywhere other than upstate New York for school, and so while I wasn’t totally ignorant of the class and financial divisions in our society, I didn’t understand their depths and nuances.  To be fair, the country wasn’t as financially fractured then as it is now.

As we pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store my brother planned to drop me off, and while I did the grocery shopping he would get the pizza at Sal’s.  He would then circle back and pick me up and we would drive home together.  Easy enough.

I was looking for the grocery list as we sat in the parking space and was about to get out of the car.  I must have left it at home.  I was trying to recreate it in my mind when my brother said something which I didn’t quite understand.  His head was turned away from me, towards his open window.  I was sitting in the passenger seat in my own world, and I probably thought that maybe he had recognized someone outside the car in the lot, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  I got out of the car, still more than a little light-headed, and started shambling towards the store.

As I was walking, my brother backed out and pulled our car behind the car which had been parked immediately to our left.  He braked abruptly there and honked his horn twice quickly.  It was then that I turned around to see through the back windshield that my brother was flipping his middle finger to the occupant of this other car.  A large man jumped out as my brother sped off, and he began to chase our car through the lot.  He was screaming a lot of very colorful, and to be honest, even insightful insults as my brother zoomed around the parking lot.  Apparently my brother’s intent was to really whip this guy into a frenzy and get him to chase the car even more.  I didn’t notice it at the time, but there was a female passenger in our new friend’s car.  She stayed put and quiet, no doubt a learned behavior as a companion to a man in possession of a very short fuse.

My brain had a hard time catching up to the scene playing out in front of me as this very animated- this almost caricature of a man was running between the parked cars to catch my brother now speeding dangerously through the parking lot.

I had no context for what was happening. It was only later that I learned that there had been the briefest exchange between my brother and this man when we had initially pulled into the parking space.

I’m not often caught slack-jawed and stunned, but I sure was then.  My body was facing the parking lot with the grocery store behind me.  My head was turned to the far left as I stood there watching my brother speed past me, however, the sound of fast-approaching footsteps and heavy breathing suggested that I turn my head 180 degrees to the right to see that I was now clearly in the sights of a very large and very angry human running right toward me.  Without much time for me to think or fully comprehend what was happening, my brother now drove right past me and out the parking lot entrance, risking head-on collision as he sped off in search of simpler pleasures.  In a last and rather pathetic attempt of retribution, the man threw his keys at our car, hitting the rearview mirror on the driver’s side as my brother sped off to get our pizza.

It was only when I heard him say, “Your buddy’s gone, so I’m going to kick your ass!” that my pizza fantasy gave way to the danger I now faced.  My THC suppressed reflexes were finally jolted into survival mode as I only now registered the severity of the threat from this crazed and sweaty beast of a man almost on top of me.

I felt as if my feet were somehow embedded within the asphalt of the parking lot and I was temporarily unable to move, like when one stands on the beach as the waves bury your feet in the sand.

The setting sun blinded me as my would-be attacker approached.  He was backlit so I couldn’t see all his features, his dark hair, and tanned shoulders rimmed in golden sunlight.  He seemed to be coming after me now in slow motion, almost comically.  I briefly smiled seeing how goofy and out of place this guy looked in this context, and even though in real time I was about to get crushed, stomped and bloodied, I was momentarily oblivious and caught up not only in the visuals but the absurdities of the narrative.

To be quite honest, I had a different idea of how my evening was going to unfold.  My thinking was that in less than an hour I would be comfortably back home maintaining my buzz while drinking a couple of cold beers and eating some of Sal’s finest Sicilian.  I could almost conjure the taste, and my smile grew as I envisioned my inevitable gluttonous satisfaction.  I was still faintly smiling while standing there in the parking lot just seconds from annihilation.  A dumb animal led onto the killing floor, unaware of the Master Plan and my role in it, and just happy for the change of scenery.  Fighting what turned out to be an all-out class war mano-a-mano with Mr. Ray O’Sunshine here was not on my agenda.

The threat to my dinner plans was now the least of my concerns, and I quickly spun around.  I couldn’t understand why my brother would antagonize this guy and leave his little brother behind to deal with the mess he created.  I resumed my charge with a renewed sense of priorities and stepped onto the rubber mat at the entrance to the grocery store.  Back in the day, there were electric sensors in the mat that would open the door for you as you stepped on it.  Would it work for me today?  Occasionally it didn’t and you’d see people walk right into the glass.  Success! The door swung open.  With my first step into the store, I was immersed in a blast of frigidly cold air conditioning.  Sanctuary!  My elation was short-lived as I was simultaneously hit in the back of my head with a huge gob of warm saliva and phlegm.  As an added bonus, I heard the unmistakable sound of this projectile being forcefully expressed a millisecond before its impact.  This fucking mutant had actually spit in my hair.  Who does that?

A line of decency had been crossed, and as I spun around prepared to tell my attacker all about proper societal decorum he grabbed me by the shirt and tried to drag me back out of the store through the entrance.  I forcefully knocked his hands off of me and he temporarily lost his balance and took a half step back as the door started to close on him.  He was now stepping on the mat though, so the door immediately swung open again forcing it to shudder a bit with the sudden change in direction.  All this commotion caught the attention of most of the thirty or so people in this part of the store, unbeknownst to us.  I stood my ground and assessed my new acquaintance.   He was about eight inches and sixty pounds larger than I was.  Clearly, his body worked for a living.  He was wearing a black leather vest with no shirt. A walking fashion faux-pas if I ever saw one. I’ll be generous and say that his jeans were really not clean, and his cowboy boots were not just for show, they represented a way of life.  He had long dark hair that brushed his shoulders.  His face was red with rage and exertion as he had just spent the past few minutes chasing my brother all through the parking lot in the unforgiving heat like a feral animal intent on the kill.

“What the fuck is your problem?” I barked and blurted at him, slightly spraying his face with spittle. This offense alone could have gotten me killed.  I was genuinely expecting some explanation for his spit in my hair which was now running down the back of my neck and under my collar.

“Let’s go outside,” he suggested trying again to grab my arm.

I took a step back and we both only now noticed that virtually everyone in this part of the store had stopped what they were doing and was watching our little drama unfold.  I knew these people. Some by name, most by sight or passing acquaintance.  I took advantage of this moment and backed further away from him as the store fell silent.  With all eyes on him, the man slipped out through the entrance just as the door was closing behind him.

I thought that this meant we were done.

My adrenaline was kicking in nicely now, pushing out any remaining chemicals from my system.  This is often the way you come down from THC.  Coming off of it is very much like a roller coaster.  You suddenly feel a moment of lucidity and think that you’re no longer high anymore, only to shoot back up for another quick ascent.  Then you plateau for a bit and the process starts all over again.  Each time is gradually less intense.  It’s not at all like alcohol, where the buzz just slowly wears off.

I walked through the store knowing that at least some of the people here had witnessed me getting spat upon, and I wondered just how much you could see of it in my hair.  I didn’t have a tissue to try to wipe it out, and I didn’t dare put my bare hand to it.  Could I just pretend that nothing unseemly had just occurred and that there was not really a large amount of phlegm lodged in my hair that was clearly visible to all?  Or do I go the other way and acknowledge that I was just victimized in a truly repugnant fashion and act incredulous? After all, I was one of us in this us and them scenario.  I felt that I had lost some of my stature as this beast had brought me down to his level, publicly defiling me so crudely.

I was jittery from the adrenaline now, like that feeling you get from drinking too much caffeine and I realized, once again, that I had misplaced the grocery list.  I now found myself cruising the aisles trying to jog my memory as to what we needed back home.  I was choosing a few items here and there which I thought we might need, but I was sure of only one thing that I knew we absolutely needed: Cat litter.  Having five indoor cats we always needed cat litter and it’s pure hell on earth if you run out for even half a day.  Let your imagination run with that one if you must, and I knew that we ran out of litter the night before.  I found a forty-pound bag and threw it over my shoulder as I hadn’t had the opportunity to grab a grocery cart in the front of the store due to my unique entrance.  Now I was clumsily carrying everything by hand with this forty-pound bag on my shoulder.

I made my way over to the checkout counter.  It was the last checkout lane in the row and closest to the exit, which faced the large floor to ceiling windows which looked out over Chatsworth Avenue.  Had I had even the slightest suggestion of survival skills, I would have looked up to notice that my new friend Mr. O’Sunshine had taken his car and driven it out of the parking lot and had parked it in the first parking spot in front of the store as you exit.  I don’t know why it never occurred to me to look as it would have saved me a lot of trouble.

I looked instead at the cashier and tried to obtain an objective assessment of my situation.  I admired her face as she manually rang up my purchases.  Could she tell that I was still a little swimmy from the THC?  Did she perhaps witness me getting spat upon only ten minutes before just fifteen feet in front of her register?  Didn’t I know her from high school?

Conveniently dismissing the events of the past fifteen minutes, the handful of people in line behind me, and the spit in my hair I consider chatting her up a bit.  Perhaps she would be receptive to my charms, maybe even hook up later?  I was momentarily lost in these thoughts when the sounds of the coins sliding in their separate plastic trays and the cash register drawer locking into place signalled a cold end to our transaction. The look on her face as I thanked her offered no insights that would help me to gauge if my social ranking had been tarnished.  I decided to abandon the risk of further embarrassment as the thought of how I would find my brother and catch a ride home now resurfaced.

A high school kid at the end of the checkout counter had bagged my groceries and handed them to me without further incident.  I hoisted the forty-pound bag of cat litter to my shoulder.

A moment later I’m out the door, and as it swings shut behind me I am blasted yet again with the summer heat.  Before my next step, I hear the now-common refrain, “I’m going to kick your ass!”  It’s Mr. Ray O’Sunshine!  In a flash, the persistent turd is out of his car and heading toward me.  His female companion is in the passenger seat.  She starts to open her door too, but as he crosses in front of her he pushes the door shut before she can make any progress.  “Stay here, woman,” (I shit you not) as he slammed her door shut.  I have no idea what she planned on adding to our conversation.

I scanned the street quickly to see if my brother was back from getting pizza, but I’d lost all sense of time at this point.  How long had I been in the store?  Ten minutes?  An hour?  He was nowhere in sight, and with the renewed threat of violence upon me, I turned around quickly and walked right into the exit door which had already closed behind me.

“Shit!” I mumbled, almost dropping the bag of cat litter.

As Mr. Sunshine was nearly upon me I navigated my way back through the entrance and walked quickly toward the customer service desk.  He was inches behind me trying to persuade me to step outside with him again as if there were some chance that he could magically conjure some combination of words that would convince me of his superior logic so that I would go outside and fight him and we could settle the long-standing issue between the haves and have nots once and for all.

I arrive at the customer service desk and thankfully there was not a line.  I put my purchases down on a nearby bench and tried to speak to the woman behind the counter but even I couldn’t discern any of the words coming out of my mouth as the THC had now bonded to the adrenaline which I could feel pulsing hard through my temples.

She looked at me trying to understand my words, but they didn’t make sense to her either.  I looked at her as Mr. O’Sunshine was grabbing at my arm.  The context of the scene and the look on my face must have provided her with enough clues, as I caught her eye again.  I looked at her pleadingly and said one word, “police?”  This she understood and urgently now started to dial.  With things now finally going my way I turned to confront my aggressor, “look, dude, she’s calling the cops.  The police station is only a block away and they will be here in two minutes to fuck your shit up, why don’t you just get the fuck away from me now?  I have no idea what your problem is but it doesn’t concern me.”

Given the circumstances I surprised myself with my ability to be both logical and articulate.  The customer service woman was talking to the police and my new friend was in danger of making his bad afternoon even worse.  It was time to cut his losses.  I looked him hard in the eye for the first time that day and I could see that he was bubbling, weighing his options and mitigating his rage, and then, “If I’m not going to kick your ass, I’m taking your kitty litter!”  Perfect.  He reached down to the bench where I had put down my things in haste and raised the bag of cat litter to his shoulder.  He then strutted absurdly victorious out the door and to his car.  I don’t know what was said next, but I saw him yelling something at his companion as he reached out and pointed at her before opening the back door and throwing my cat litter into his back seat.  A minute later and they were gone.  I can only assume he even had a cat.

I left the store after watching them speed off.  It didn’t occur to me to get another bag of cat litter right then and there, so, absent my brother I walked the ten minutes home with the few random groceries I thought we might need.  I had absolutely zero interest in waiting around for the cops.

The first thing I saw from a distance was our car in the driveway.  With the spit drying in my hair I quickened my pace.  Closing our front door behind me I walked into the dining room to see everyone was home at the dinner table.  My brother had forgotten all about me and was selfishly eating pizza. Et Tu.

I was livid.  I asked him what had prompted this nightmare, and he told me that he had never seen this guy before, but when we had first pulled into the parking lot Mr. O’Sunshine had made a nasty comment about us preppy assholes in our preppy shirts.  This was what prompted my brother to flip him off.

Now with the advantage of three decades of hindsight, it might be best (be best!) to examine why this man was so incredibly angry and felt that he was owed anything, even something as infinitely, cosmically silly as cat litter from our exchange.

His comment was illustrative of a common complaint throughout many societies, but especially in the US and even more so today than ever before.  At that moment he was his day’s representative of the disenfranchised class.  He’d perhaps felt that he wasn’t appropriately represented in society and was slowly becoming invisible.  In the coming decades, he would imagine a future with longer working hours for less money as the system spun out of control and the wealth drained from the bottom echelons of society to a few hundred people at the top.  The harder he worked, the less relevant he became.

Think for a moment about a delicious milkshake in your favorite diner.  Imagine that the top one percent of the bloated class has put a straw in the glass and is greedily sucking out all of that milkshake.  Through the straw, the bottom is consumed first, as the top slowly falls lower and lower until there is nothing left and the glass is empty.

On that day the man whom I sarcastically refer to as Mr. Ray O’Sunshine drifted through an exclusive community, an enclave of the upper-middle class, and saw whom society chose to favor.  He then took the opportunity to proclaim his disapproval, “look at these assholes in their preppy shirts,” and then the inevitable happened; a member of a higher class, with more education and opportunity, made the ultimate gesture which summarised and reinforced what the advantaged class had been saying to him his whole adult life, “fuck you.”

So I get the rage, I do.  And as we are all in this milkshake together, and as we all eventually get consumed by the higher insatiable class, I share the rage.  I just didn’t realize it at the time.  My new friend in the vest, being denied his ability to register his complaint in a more acceptable manner was striking out in the only way that he could.  This brought us together, and for the moment he was the aggressor who had found the weakest and most vulnerable member of the herd and was going to finally register his complaint in one of the foulest ways he could muster at the moment.  He didn’t have the tools of articulation, the benefits of a law degree, or any other powers at his disposal.  So he gathered all his anger and hatred for a society that mocked his existence and lashed out and filed his complaint by spewing his rage into my hair.  I was his Sharon Tate, and he was my Manson.  Through this lens, I had gotten off easy.