I daydreamed as I stood in line for the till, cradling my carton of milk and loaf of bread like precious cargo. The shop is usually pretty quiet mid-morning, with only freelancers and frazzled parents usually stopping in for essentials. The man in front of me was taking his time, and slowly my attention drifted back down to earth and settled on his lanky figure. His clothes were ill-fitting and dirty. His hair hadn’t been washed in any version of the recent past, and his cheeks were hollow. He was buying cigarettes and a six-pack of beer.
“I just lost a hundred on a horse,” he said to the young guy working the till. He sounded both apologetic and desperate, as if this grocery shop employee could hear his confession and grant him forgiveness as part of the transaction. “I lost a hundred on a horse,” he muttered again, his eyes wide and panicked. “That was me last hundred, you know?”
The guy on the till – a good-looking twenty year old with West Asian features – raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and nodded in the universal expression for ‘Ooookay then!’
He rang up the beer in silence.
“I just need a drink to take the edge off, you know. Like, that was me last hundred.” The man gulped and his fingers fluttered nervously on the edge of the conveyer belt. “It was a good tip. It was a good tip I got about the horse, but it just… These things happen, you know.”
The words just poured out of him. He kept repeating himself. He was fixated on the horse and how it had run the race and what had happened to keep him from winning. The conditions weren’t favourable. The horse started wrong. The jockey didn’t make the right calls. All the time he was talking his fingers danced along the metal edge of the till and his eyes darted nervously across the back wall.
“That was me last hundred. I can’t believe it, you know?”
I watched him, and my heart hurt for him. I’ve been there. Maybe I haven’t been buying-a-six-pack-and-a-carton-of-smokes-at-11am-after-losing-my-last-hundred-on-a-horse kind of there, but I’ve definitely experienced that feeling of having Messed Up that hits like an avalanche and robs you of reason. I’ve felt that horrible, unrelenting anxiety close over me. I’ve had moments that made me want to vomit because in the panic of the moment I feared I’d dug myself a hole that felt like it might be a grave.
The man’s gaze flicked blindly over his cans and his packet of cigarettes. It bounced across the plants stacked next to the door, ricocheted off the bottles of Jack Daniels behind the till, and finally came to rest on the cashier, who stared at him with ill-concealed disdain.
“That’ll be €21.90,” the twenty-year old said cooly. His eyes met mine for a moment and the faintest flash of a smirk crossed his face.
There was a strained silence as the man nodded to himself and pulled change out of his pockets, counting out the exact amount. He handed it to the boy, and picked up his things. He stood for a moment, as if waiting for something more – help, maybe, or absolution – then nodded once last time and dragged himself out of the shop. The cashier and I watched him leave in silence, then I placed my items on the belt and gave the guy a small smile.
He started to scan my items and shook his head. “Not even 12pm,” he said to me in a half-amused, half-disgusted tone of voice.
“Irish people, huh?”
He caught me so off-guard that I simply stared at him. I tapped my card against the machine, picked up my stuff and walked out without saying a word.
Afterwards, I kicked myself for not having said anything, but I was so surprised at the number of assumptions he made in that moment that I was struck mute. Consider for a moment that to make that throwaway comment he had to have thought:
- That all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
- That I am not Irish
- That I agree that all Irish people are alcoholic gamblers
- That I feel justified in judging strangers based on two-minute interactions
I mean… None of those things are true.
I’ve touched on the fact that I don’t look Irish before, but I think that’s the first time somebody has felt comfortable enough assigning me a background that they’ve dragged me into a conspiratorial bit of casual racism against Irish people. It would be more understandable if this had happened abroad, but we’re in Ireland! Not a huge leap to think I might be Irish despite not looking the part.
I haven’t seen the gambler since.
The cashier still smiles conspiratorially at me anytime I go to the shop.
How should I have handled this? Have you ever had anything like this happen? I’d like to somehow slip my Irishness into conversation next time I get caught at his till, but I now actively avoid him if I see him working. The whole thing just makes my skin crawl.
I hope the gambler is okay. I hope his panic passed. I hope he’s backed off from backing horses.