A couple of weeks ago I was looking at a shelf full of miscellaneous Halloween stuff at a store, weighing my desire to decorate the apartment against my desire to avoid filling up the apartment with even more crap, when a man, white-haired, bespectacled, looked to be in maybe his late sixties or early seventies, approached me.
“Where’s the bathroom?” he asked without preamble, looking at me expectantly.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Oh! I’m…I thought you worked here.”
“No,” I said, and in a fit of uncharacteristically externalized pique, I said “Why are you asking me?”
He wouldn’t answer. I don’t think I was being overtly hostile, although I suppose it’s entirely possible that I was, but whatever vibe I was giving off, he didn’t have an answer. Instead he mumbled something inaudible and walked away.
There WERE employees working in the aisles here and there, just not in the aisle I was in. The employees in this particular store wear a standardized, color-coordinated outfit – red collared shirts, beige pants. They have name tags. They’re hard to miss. I, on the other hand, was wearing one of my usual shabby outfits – jeans, a long-sleeve black t-shirt, faded black 3/4-length trenchcoat, and white running shoes. I was standing with one hand in my coat pocket and the other holding a crappily manufactured plastic pumpkin or some such thing.
I didn’t look like an employee. I was doing nothing to indicate I was an employee. And I can’t say what that man’s reasons for approaching me were, because he wouldn’t tell me. I have a guess, though. It’s just a guess; I have to acknowledge the real possibility that I’m completely off-base. But the thing that seems most plausible to me, more so because of his refusal to offer an explanation, is that this man, clearly of an older generation, clearly used to speaking to people working in service jobs with a preemptory air of demand, assumed I was an employee of the store because unlike him, I’m not white.