Friday, August 05, 2005


I work in the customer service industry; to do such is to deal regularly with assholes. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it; assholes are the thin gruel by which we feed our coffers and sustain our meager existences.

There are some days in which I can deal with assholes in an adroit, compassionate manner. When I’ve been keeping up on the meditation and the exercise and the philosophical literature, when I’m not too hung over, when the planets are correctly aligned, I can look at the assholes from a place of higher perspective, from which I realize that there are, generally speaking, only two root causes for people acting like rude imbeciles toward other people. They either: A) never learned any better, by which avenue I have as little right to condemn them as people have right to condemn me for not speaking Cantonese, or; B) they have the capacity for good manners and fail to employ them because they are internally miserable individuals, lashing out uncontrollably at others to expel their hidden discontent and bring strangers into their web of unhappiness. It’s difficult for me to get angry with the assholes on days like this. I have empathy and pity for them; in a manner sincerely uncondescending, I feel sorry for them.

And then, of course, there are the all-too-human days, when I’m tired and full of myself, when everything is a personal insult, and I just don’t feel like dealing with the grief. On those days, as an esteemed Viennese neurologist once nearly put it, sometimes, an asshole is just as asshole.

This is one of those latter kind of days, and Manuel is one of those assholes. Some dues are about to be paid.

But first, the back story: Manuel started coming in here a few months ago, when he moved to the Glen, a seedy apartment complex behind my store which offers large, inexpensive one bedroom apartments and that omits that whole cumbersome “criminal background and credit screening” phase of the pre-rental proceedings. The result is that the locale has exactly the residential mix one might expect under the circumstances: ex-convicts, drug dealers with no paper income, welfare moms, illegal immigrants and college kids. It’s a gangsta’s paradise, stocked to the rafters with potheads and crackheads, booze-hounds and the occasional hooker, all lining up before me nightly, six packs and munchies in hand to show me their stories, like a card player’s tell, implicitly giving things away without so much as a syllable.

Manuel is a Mexican immigrant of questionable legal status, who lives, as I mentioned, at the Glen. He’s about 5’11, slightly built with an angular, more Spanish than Aztec face, featuring shifty, suspicious brown eyes and a thin, black moustache. His habit has been to come into my shop several times daily, wordlessly buying a single, 24oz can of Budweiser, and quietly departing.

Now, I must note, a strange thing happens when one works in a small, enclosed space like the one I work in: over time, the space slowly contorts itself into the whole world, a state in which one ceases to notice or be concerned with what transpires beyond its boundaries. Customers entering become visitors from an alien planet or alternate reality, beaming themselves into existence before the doorway, scattering their atoms moments after they exit. So it came as some surprise to me when I belatedly observed that Manuel was drinking his beer in his car, a red, banged-up, late 1980’s Pontiac Sunbird, in the far corner of our parking lot. He had propped up the hood to project the idea that he was performing maintenance or repairs, but he wasn’t; he was just sitting in his car, swilling his paper-sack enclosed Bud, then proceeding inside to get another—after tossing his empty, crumpled can onto the parking lot, as if that were an acceptable thing to do in his view.

What Manuel was doing was illegal, of course. But both myself and my weekend comrade-in-arms, Mike, are laissez faire, live-and-let-live kind of gents that weren’t bothered by that. It wasn’t as if our friend Manny was directly hurting anybody by his open-container code defiance, after all, and so, on both juridical and moral grounds, we decided that a blind eye was the appropriate tool of response. However, when you pollute a space which we take turns cleaning, your problem becomes our problem. Moreover, it’s just bad form—biting the hand that feeds you.

The day following our tardy epiphany, Mike told Manuel as much. “Look,” he said, quite placidly, “we don’t care that you drink beer in our parking lot, but when you leave your empty cans on the ground, you’re making a mess that we have to clean up.” Mike was being Mike, a practical, even-tempered man who was simply thinking in the very utilitarian terms of action and consequence: we like you when you buy things and thereby fund our wages; we dislike you when you create labor for us during said time which we would have been paid regardless.

Manuel nodded obediently during this brief lecture, and so we considered the matter settled. He went out to the battered Sunbird, drank his beer, put down the hood and drove off. It wasn’t until Mike, later, was sweeping the lot that we realized that Manuel had deposited every, single piece of trash from his litter-laden vehicle onto our blacktop. That’s right: he had perceived Mike’s gentle remonstrance as some sort of slight, and taken what he felt to be the appropriate measure of vengeance—biting the hand that fed him once again. Some people, I swear.

Naturally, I brought the incident to Manuel’s attention the next time I saw him in the store. I was, as I always am, less dispassionate than the terminally laconic Mike. “Look, amigo,” I began, “we don’t appreciate you leaving us a parking lot full of trash the other night. Drinking your beer on our property is illegal, and if I see you doing it again I will have to call la policia. Comprende, amigo?" I hoped that littering my diatribe with scraps of my horridly incoherent Spanish might serve to more effectively drive the point home.

But instead of nodding subserviently, Manuel gave a taken aback, utterly feigned, “who me?/ no speak English,” shrug before heading out to his wreck and driving away. It’s horse-droppings, of course: Manuel speaks and understands English just fine. Yet once again, I considered the matter punctuated: who’s stupid enough to bite the hand that feeds him three times? Honestly, the assailed hand is destined to stop feeding after enough of this.

So our happy status quo, that of Manuel purchasing his cerveza and departing, persisted only as long as it took me to fathom that it had never existed at all: as I spied a dinged, red, Pontiac Sunbird through the back plexiglass of the building one Thursday, I realized that Manuel had simply moved his ride to the other side of the premises, which the clerks face away from and are less likely to notice. And he’d taken to setting his empty beer cans on the outside ledge, behind the newspaper box, where they’d be difficult to notice—passive–aggression as timed explosive. Some people do bite the hand that feeds them thrice. There is, it would seem, just no benefit in talking sense to a certain breed of contemptible miscreant. They're going to take every bit of didacticism as an affront, and fervently offer you clandestine, emptied cans of mediocre beer as your reward.

It must be noted that, however much I’m tempted to or justified in doing so, I’m not permitted to refuse paying customers service just because they’re assholes: asshole money doesn’t bookmark itself as being appreciably less spendable in the store owner’s checking account than decent-person money, after all, and so telling Manuel what he could go do with himself while withholding his precious Budweiser has never been an option for me. Unless patrons are being threatening or actually violent, I am enslaved to the CIAR, grin-and-bear-it ethos. So I merely endured the latest escalation of Manuel-versus-Gas Center #2, because I know, in the way of all things, the way of the force, that an avenue of karmic adjustment is going to present itself.

It does, of course, because if one is patient, karmic retribution mails itself onto your doorstep, happily and silently. Hamlet waited eight years for his revenge, after all, with rather spectacular results, so what's a few months to me? But now it is 12:17 on this same Thursday eve/Friday morning; there is a red, dented, Pontiac Sunbird, deserted in the back lot behind me, that has clearly been abandoned overnight. This isn't a new thing; Manuel has left his ride here for days at a pop plenty of times in the past. And yet, part of the CIAR malarkey that I deal with is that I can’t order cars towed without managerial approval unless exigent circumstances dictate that I simply must. I’m certainly not getting the requisite approval tonight, as my store manager has gone to bed four hours earlier, and I’d get a new orifice of my own if I woke her up at this juncture.

But this whole world, and the life of its occupants, involves dues: you get what you pay for, and you reap what you sow. It’s a closed system, contrary to what everyone thinks, by which gains and losses are relative, by which iniquity comes back to haunt you, and kindness is repaid when you least expect it. It may seem random and unfair at first glance, but that’s simply because first impressions are almost always wrong. With this idea firmly established, I again looked outside and realized something quintessentially beautiful.

Manual’s mangled, unsightly ride is blocking my trash dumpster; the exigent circumstance requisite has been satisfied. I pick up the phone, gleefully, and dial seven digits.

“Forest Hill Towing,” comes the disinterested night-operator on the other end.

“Hi, I’m the night clerk at Gas Center #2. We have a trash pickup in the morning, and we also have a car blocking the dumpster.” We don’t have a pickup in the morning, but I can lie when I’m being bantam-weight Genghis Khan, the scourge of the underappreciated.

“We’ll have someone right out, sir,” comes my happy reply.

Minutes later, I wickedly laugh out loud as Manuel’s ride gets hauled away, while I'm crowing like the 86-octane Sword of Vengeance that I am. By the time he comes back to the store on Monday to rudely discover his transport missing, he’s already $259 in the hole. Blue Book on his car is probably only $500. As he comes into my shop aghast, I simply hand him the business card of the towing company and send him on his way. He's still never retrieved the car: there are penalties for being penejos.

Karma, as has been observed, can be a bitch sometimes.