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Social Symptoms and the Corner Store

Sorting a Mixed Bag

by JOE RAMSEY

It is hot and humid, the last day in June.  I don’t have any milk for iced coffee at home, so I head out to the nearest square, before a caffeine head-ache sets in.  To get some milk from the store.

I pass a stout stucco church at the foot of the Hill, hear piano music and bells through the open windows, then head up the hill towards the nearby Square, past the house of the local campus police officer who got shot and killed by one of the Boston marathon Bombers.  The cops had this whole area blocked off during the big lock-and-load showdown.

Reaching the edge of the square, I stop to chat with the friendly mustached keeper of the corner store.  He’s from Pakistan.  He is sitting on a stool outside the door, smoking, and greets me with enthusiasm as “my friend.”  His smile is warm, though his eyes are red with sleep deprivation.  He asks me how I have been, and what I’ve been up to.  I tell him I just got back from a trip to Ohio, that I was at an academic conference.  What’s new with him? I ask.  “Still here, same place,” he tells me.

Between his hands, he holds an pamphlet, an Christian evangelist brochure, which he’s been flipping through.   I ask him casually what he thinks of all that religion stuff.   His face contracts and he makes a wobbling “mezza mezza” gesture with his hand above beside his head.

“A mixed bag, right?” I suggest, thinking of Marx.  How religion is a dialectical and contradictory thing, the site of mystification and delusion as well as utopian yearnings and displaced solutions.  The “soul in a soulless world,” he called it, as well as the “opiate of the masses.” (This in an age when opiates were one of the only decent pain killers around.)  “The sigh of the oppressed.”

I have been thinking a lot lately of what it would mean for radicals and communists to take religion seriously, in the ways that Marx himself did, even in his atheism.  How to relate to the soul in a soulless world in this age of capitalist cynicism?  I want to hear what my friend thinks—he tends to be quite level-headed, a free thinker.

“People say one thing, but do another,” he tells me.  “How can people be so close with the religion,” he wants to know, “and then kill so many people?”  I mention the Crusades.  He nods and speaks of Hindu and Muslim and Sikh extremists in Pakistan, and in India, too.  Of how the people of India and Pakistan are the same, but are often divided by false ideas.  Of people killing people for religion.  People talking peace and making war.  Seeing my interest in the topic, he ducks inside and behind the shop-counter—the back wall plastered with scratch ticket dispensers and crowded with cigarette cartons—and fetches another Jesus pamphlet.   “This is the same thing, but in my language,” he says.  It’s a kind of comic book starring a tanned, clean-bearded, chiseled Jesus in white robes as hero.  The captions flow through a thin ornamental characters.  It looks a bit like Arabic to me, but he explains to me that it’s Urdu.  He flips through the pages, showing me.  His fingers handle paper with a kind of expertise, as if it’s an extension of his flesh and skin, though I’m not sure exactly what he is showing me.   It’s not clear if his interest is in the pamphlet’s truth or falsity, if he is agreeing or mocking it.  Perhaps he likes the colorful pictures, or just wants to show me what his native script of Urdu looks like on the page.  He speaks four languages, he tells me, including Arabic, and a local tongue from his region of Pakistan.  “From one village to another, people don’t speak same language,” he explains.  “I go over there, their word for one thing, different word from my village.  I can’t understand.”

Social as he is, I wonder if maybe he is reading these pamphlets just so he can make conversation with the person who gave it to him.  As if anything that can break the monotony of cash and plastic transaction is to be cupped, held, sucked, like an ice cubes in the desert.

He holds the two pamphlets side by side, cigarette in his lips, and flips through, sounding out the English subtitles, his calloused dark finger tracing across the white page, underlining the text:

Does life have meaning?”

Faith: An end to all suffering.

He is not preaching it to me, but, it would seem, struggling to understand what such questions might mean, or how they would sound in English, the language of commerce and money and banal pleasantries, of “thank you…come again.”

What makes life seem so meaningless?” He reads the words and lets them hang in the humid air.

He’s told me a bit about his life.  How he works 70 hours a week, split between two jobs.  How each one keeps him on his feet, shut in a space not much bigger than a phone booth.  How his shoe soles are worn paper thin.  How sometimes he does his night shift at the corner store in his collared uniform t-shirt from the upscale mall across town, where he operates a garage toll booth, controlling the descending arm with a button, like a plastic parody of an executioner’s axe.  Letting patrons out of the dungeon, once they pay the proper fee.  Though of course he knows better than anyone that any driver with the will could just plow right through, and probably get away with it, too.  He’d be the one left having to explain, the one blamed.

At the end of his shift, he rushes back across town, fighting traffic in his tiny compact; booth to box to counter.  Often, he lacks the time even to change his clothes.

On both sides of the city, he is endlessly handling money.  Other people’s money, money for the bank, for the building owners, for the boss, for the bills.   Thousands and thousands of dollars sometimes in a single day.  He spends summer days encased in plexiglass and boxed in by asphalt and blacktop, living underground, beneath the glittering glass encased shops and all the latest shimmering things, the odor of car exhaust and tire rubber and sometimes maybe urine wafting faintly through the air conditioner vents.   He is forever thanking people for paying him. For paying others through him.  Paid but ten dollars an hour for his labor, his hands have touched the presidential faces, his fingers oil have smudged the paper, of millions.  Out of the palm and into the box.  Out of the box and into the zipper bag.  Out of the bag and into the bank.  Out of the bank and off to pay bills.  He can read the bank number off a credit card like a blind man reads braille. A human cash register.

He still strains to smile for strangers, through sheets of glass and mental fog, seeking to bridge the strangeness.  To infuse the meaningless with meaning.  His cheek muscles pucker like a fist turned inside out.  His dreams, I imagine, are haunted by bells, the unstoppable ding of the register popping open, the bells jangling metal against the swinging glass door, yanking him back to his station—take their money, bag their boxes and bottles, to tell them to come again.    He knows the sticker price of ten thousand commodities.  He takes pride in never over packing a bag, never letting his customers’ contents spill out onto the pavement.  He’s confessed to me that he’ll let a hungry person who can’t afford it have a candy bar or bag of chips for free, but he shakes his head recalling high school kids who have tried to steal junk food by the box. Working alone, he cannot chase them far beyond the front door.  Cannot leave his station unattended.  The specter of looting lingers.  He hopes the cameras and monitors will deter anyone from pulling a gun on him.  The big money comes in from cigarettes and scratch tickets, deadly things he will never let his children touch.

He must know most of the people in neighborhood.  Hundreds of people a day come in.  Dozens and dozens of regulars visit daily, many of them stopping to chat.

His extended hours may be making him a stranger to his own children—a girl, 4, and a boy 11—but are making him a public figure, a minor city square celebrity.  Though for many customers, he remains an invisible appendage to a debit card machine.

His eyes smile through sleep-deprivation that gives him a constant headache.  Backed by shelves of boxed pain reliever, he isn’t supposed to sample the merchandise, only sell it.  The cameras record his actions, deter his impulses, too.  He asks me when we are getting another issue of the Boston Occupier newspaper, which he was happy to make available to for free, laid out by the coffee station.  His freedom extends at least as far as the countertops.  He calls me “friend” though we don’t know each other’s names, bending the verbal tags of commerce into something human.  The smoke from his cigarette at least can float free, up into the sky.

I happen to be carrying a piece of literature myself, and I take it out, a thin Kasama Project pamphlet—neon yellow with a tiger stalking the cover.  I crack a joke about my “religion” being “revolution,” about how I think the meaninglessness in the world is due to how capitalism reduces all of life to nothing but money and the need to get it, and how my hope for “heaven” being that we can change things in this world, rather than waiting for the next one.   Not sure if he’ll read it, or if I really even want him to.  Don’t want him to see me as just another evangelical, or as an oversophisticated, phrase-fat academic radical.  And surely he already knows the way this system works—its soul sucking routine, its overpricing of everything except labor-power. I was most interested in listening to him, as I said.  But he seems thoughtful and curious, and has downtime to fill, and it seems like he might have the English skills to handle the text.  Anything that staves off boredom may be welcome.

Maybe we’ll talk about the Kasama pamphlet next time.  But I’m thinking we need literature in Urdu, and Arabic, and Creole, and Spanish, and Portuguese.  I’m thinking we should have pamphlets with pictures, in color, with cartoons, with humor, with spirit.  I’m thinking about what it would mean for communists to rip a page from religion, to take the serious the meaninglessness that capitalism and materialism breed, the cynical yolk at the heart of every gilded commodity egg.  What could we make of the need that draws people towards this “mixed bag” of faith, spirituality, and religion?

He asks me if I’d like a bag for the milk.  I tell him no, thanks.  I’ll take it as is. We shake hands and I take the cool, plastic-encased Skim by the handle and feel good about this connection I have made with this local shop-keeper, over these last couple of years.  We have become friends in a way.  And who says that a friend can’t become a comrade?

I wonder how someone like him fits into the scheme of things, the class structure, the struggles at hand, the struggles to come.  It’s a family business he works for, with his brothers and cousins, though he puts in almost all the work-hours; and yet he’s a nearly full-time glass-boxed wage slave across town.   Is this man “working-class”? And does it even matter?  And how could someone like him—so kind and widely known in the community, so aware of life as struggle, so aware of global violence, hypocrisies, and inequalities—be won to revolution, moved from making change to changing the world?  Would, could such a project matter to him?

Before heading back up the hill, I catch sight of yet another corner store—there are three of them serving this minor intersection.  The married couple from India that run the place across the street are standing outside, looking my way, then ducking back inside.  They too spend their days cloistered behind a counter, only they do it together: a kind of husband wife team.  Do they see me as a traitor for the half-gallon of milk in my hand?  Are they resentful of their competitor’s popularity?  They were here first, after all, before this newer shop came along.   His friendliness and sociability to them must represent a threat, his smile a knife against their throat.  Every dollar he collects is a dollar they don’t get. They too, are working almost all the time, mostly to pay the bank, like him; like him, they hope to send children to college. There too, they call you “friend”—a bit of worry audible in their over-eager greetings.

Family versus family, “Indian” store against “Pakistani” store, competing for the market in this peripheral city square.  They sell mostly the same stuff, likely loaded off the very same supplier trucks, by even the very same delivery workers, off of the same dollies.  Probably paying off debt to the very same banks.   Fighting for the same crumpled dollar bills, courting the same nicotine addicts and scratch ticket junkies.  They are involved in the same enterprise of supplying people with plastic wrapped things that they need or want, in exchange for money…and yet they must experience one another as threats, as rivals.  They cannot identify with their own mirror image.

I wonder if their days would be less lonely and anxious if they could all find a way to work together, instead of against one another.  Merge or ally the stores together, share the work, socialize the means of distribution, cut the paperwork in half, confront the banks and corporate suppliers as a united front, stop undercutting one another’s prices, turn a rival into a friend.  Such local moves wouldn’t address the root causes, of course, but still….  I wonder how one might bring unity out of division here; about who can be united against what, by what means, on what basis….  Would it be an outgrowth of economic interest that small shop-keepers could come together, or only in light of some deeper, more universal political truth? How should communists approach the issue of small business?  How would socialist reorganization apply here, on this corner?

I pick up the pace and head back towards my apartment, needing coffee to stave off this caffeine headache. With my store-bought milk to cut the bitterness of the coffee.

***

Not much unique or special here, I guess.   It’s a familiar scene, one that you can find in many a city square.  Competition inverting similarity into rivalry, isolation preventing cooperation, human beings reduced to cash registers, talents being squandered, guts being eaten away by worry, freedom kept at bay by mechanical bells and counters that might as well be cages, lives traded in and smoked away for an educational scratch ticket and a chance at a better life for a son or daughter who grows into a stranger, even as strangers become “friends.” Humanity trying to raise its head and snatch a clean breath through the commodity smog.

It’s far from being the most extreme obscenity of a system that slaughters and starves masses of people daily.  From a global perspective, I guess, you could say that these aspiring struggling shop-owners are some of the “lucky ones”: here in American they are the custodians and peddlers rather than producers of commodities.  In exchange for a life of monotony and boredom, sore legs and swollen feet, they may—may—have a chance of accumulating a bit of property, acquiring higher education for their children, maybe even in fields that can provide them steady employment…But the social symptoms of a sick system are apparent nonetheless.

I try to listen closely, making friends, noting symptoms, but also seeking ingredients for the cure.

Joe Ramsey is editor of Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice  www.clogic.eserver.org as well as a participant in the Kasama Project .  He can be emailed at jgramsey AT gmail.com.