Shame on me: A missed opportunity to teach a lesson

I stood on the sidewalk fingering my credit card receipt. I was disgusted. I was appalled. I wanted to walk back into the store and return the merchandise I had just bought. I would be polite about it, not confrontational. I'd just tell the owner that I had changed my mind and decided that I didn't really need a new set of salad plates. Besides, I would tell him, I don't do business with people who use that word.

But first I had to calm down.

My jaw must have dropped when the owner casually threw out that racial epithet, that four-letter anti-Semitic word that I hoped never to hear spoken. He didn't use it in reference to me. He was telling me a story. But that doesn't make it any better. Neither does the fact that he's Jewish. A Jew more than anyone else should know better. If people hear him using the word, they may think it's acceptable, and it's not. It's derogatory and degrading. The "k" word is a racial slur as bad as the "n" word.

Shame on him.

I don't even like shopping at his store. He's a curmudgeon and I always end up being overly friendly to compensate. I feel like it's an imposition to ask him for help so my every sentence starts with, "I'm sorry to bother you but…" or "If it's not too much trouble…" Then to add insult to injury, he never remembers me from one time to the next. It's easier to drive across town to another store. But today I was in a hurry.

Ironically, this time things had gotten off to a good start. The owner said something about being Jewish so I let him know I was, too. That seemed to open him up, not in a friendly way, but definitely civil and I felt good about that. We talked about synagogues. I told him that I grew up in Cleveland, where Rosh Hashanah marked the opening of mink season. No matter how hot it was, every woman who owned a stole took it out of storage and wore it to services. To this day the smell of mothballs makes me want to pray.

As we stood at the cash register, he told me about some customers who had been in his store recently. They were from out of town, rude and loud. He handed me my receipt and then leaned over the counter toward me conspiratorially. "I wouldn't say that to just anyone, but I know I can say it to you," he said lowering his voice. "They were kikes."

I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. That was the first time I've ever actually heard anyone use that word in regular speech. Of course I know it happens. A friend told me that someone had yelled it at her not long ago.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"Nothing," she said. "The guy was drunk. It wasn't worth it."

Drunk isn't an excuse and I thought about what I would have done in her place. Hit him? Tell him that racial slurs are the weapons of the ignorant and cowardly? Lecture him about how racism erodes a society? Scream and yell and create a scene?

I thought I was prepared to deal with something like that, but this one caught me off guard. I never expected one Jew to talk to about another in those terms.

Later that night, I told my husband about what happened.

"What did you do?" Joe asked

"I almost returned the dishes," I said and then hastily added, "and I'm never going to set foot in that store again."

"What did you say to him?"

"I wanted to tell him off, but I was too upset," I said. "He must have known he did wrong just by the expression on my face."

After a pause, I added, "But I didn't say anything."

"You know he's going to use that word again," Joe said. "He doesn't know any better."

Joe was right. I should have explained to the storeowner why some words are never acceptable and should never be used by anyone under any circumstances. But I didn't and now the opportunity has passed.

Shame on me.