It all happened because I wanted some cheese. Nice cheese. Expensive cheese. Applewood smoked cheddar. Brie. Danish Blue. Joe and I were choosing the cheese and, once done, I slipped it into my wheelchair bag. Then he went his way to do his part of the list, I went mine to get the stuff that was assigned to me. I picked up crackers. I picked up pumpkin loaf. I picked up bread. I picked up a bagful of stuff. Then, as we always do, Joe and I met and I transferred my stuff to his cart and then headed out of the store.
This is a store that we've shopped in at least twice a week, barring times when we are on the road of course, for five years. We have nodding acquaintance with many of the staff there, some of whom greet us by name. Our rituals are not unknown to them. I left Joe in the line up and headed off to the liquor store to pick up some beer. We were having a nice day. We had the Messiah on in the afternoon, we'd had a lovely morning doing Christmas stuff.
I picked up the beer, once again putting it in my bag as I always do. Once again in a store where we shop regularly. Once again in a place where staff know us and say hello. I turned my chair and found three people standing blocking my way. One of them, a woman, was glaring at me. She was clearly very, very, angry. I was confused. I was further confused when I recognised them as being from the grocery store that I'd just left. They followed me, FOLLOWED ME, into another store, why?? That confusion was heightened by the fact that they'd blocked me in. I get very claustrophobic in these situations. I don't think that non wheelchair users understand, even slightly, what being pinned in like that feels like. When it happens accidentally it's frightening, when it happens purposely, it's intensely threatening. I looked at them helplessly. She glares back, arms folded over her chest, her stance aggressive.
Before I could say anything. The woman says, loudly, "Are you going to pay for the cheese you've taken from my store." I was shocked. I begin to babble. My heart is beating hard in my chest. I am an honest person. I value my reputation for being honest. I never steal! Ever. Nothing. It's one of the Commandments for heaven's sake. It's wrong. I tell her as I am fumbling in my bag to find the cheese, that I must have forgotten, or missed it when I did the transfer over to Joe LIKE I HAVE DONE HUNDREDS OF TIMES BEFORE. That I'll pay for it. She just stands there, glaring saying, "Are you going to pay for the cheese?" I keep grabbing to the bottom of my bag, trying to find the cheese. The beer cans are in the way. I can't find the cheese! I CAN'T FIND THE CHEESE.
She asks several more times.
They continue to stare at me.
Others are now staring too.
Others are now seeing me as a fat, disabled thief.
I don't think I can bear the embarrassment and the humiliation.
I am angry at myself. I should have been more careful when I transferred the stuff over. She is so sure that I've stolen that I am sure I have too. I do that. When accused of anything I immediately, at first impulse, feel guilty and apologise. I can't find the cheese.
I CAN'T FIND THE CHEESE.
Finally, as the seconds tick by, as the demand for me to produce the cheese intensifies, I am full of blind panic. I ask, helplessly as I'm shaking now, for the man she brought with her to help me get the beer out of the bag so I can produce the cheese. People everywhere are staring. He approaches to help. He's a big man. She brought him along, I don't know why, he had nothing to do with this. I recognise the other woman as being from the cheese department. He helps me get my bag empty.
There is no cheese.
I COULDN'T FIND THE CHEESE BECAUSE IT WASN'T THERE.
I've taken nothing from the store.
Guilt switches to anger. Intense anger.
I have been targeted.
Everyone who saw what happened, the first part of the story, will not know that the accusation was groundless. That I had been followed from one store into another and falsely accused. I will always be a thief in their eyes. She stole from me my reputation, yet I am considered a thief.
Before continuing, I need to tell you that I value my reputation. Like everyone does. But, for me, I know that people make assumptions about me because of my weight, because of my disability. I know that I belong to a visual minority which is subject to prejudice and stereotyping. I know that we are often seen as benefit gobbling, non contributing, scum. I know that there are those who believe that's we'd be better off dead. I do what I can, in my own little way, to try to demonstrate that not only do I have a good quality of life, I also have qualities that I bring to my life and to the lives of others. Those who know me, know that I strive to be a decent, honest, caring man. I may fail from time to time, but I do strive to be the kind of guy that people think is a 'straight up dude.' So losing that reputation costs me. Hurts me. Deeply. And ... as it turns out, angers me beyond belief.
I am outraged.
I point at her and tell her, loudly, that she has falsely accused me.
She DENIES IT.
She said, "I never accused you of anything."
Then she says, "You weren't even sure if the cheese was in your bag."
I don't have to be sure.SHE DOES. I demand that she accompany me to the store, find Joe and see that the cheese is with him and being paid for. She and her gang flee the store. I have to make my way out. The beer is left on the shelf where it was placed when I was trying to find the non-existent stolen cheese. It takes a few minutes as the aisles are full of Christmas displays. I find her and her cabal at the bottom of the escalator just outside the store. I demand she come with me.
I see Joe. Standing innocently in a long line. I shout to him, "This woman has accused me of shoplifting the cheese, show her the cheese!!"
She leaves me and goes to him. Joe, looking shell shocked, shows her the cheese. I see her talking rapidly to him. I find out later that to him, TO HIM, she is apologising. She has yet to apologise to me! She comes back to me. We have further words. I tell her that what she has done is reprehensible. I accuse her of targeting me, at least partially, because I have a disability. That she was operating on stereotype. I find out later, after she protests to me, that she has said to Joe, "this has nothing to do with his disability." At the point she is speaking to him, I had not raised the issue of my disability. She did.
I tell her that she can expect a report, I want the name of the owner of the store. She is the store owner. Then I ask for a contact for the franchise, even owners have someone above them. She gives me her card.
Joe then joins me and we leave the store. I write a letter of outrage and protest as soon as I get home. It is sent to the corporate body of the franchise chain. I copy her, That begins another saga that is yet to be finished.
Here's the thing.
I can't shake this.
Those moments in the store, being blocked in, being accused, pleading for understanding, being stared at by others, desperately digging in my bag, seeing this big man brought along, now I understand, for intimidation approach me to take stuff out of my bag, keep replaying in my mind. The faces of those other customers, those employees of the other store, who stopped to watch, to have their prejudices confirmed, I can still see.
I am deeply hurt.
I have trouble going back to that mall. A place I've always felt safe and even welcomed. A place where, until then, I had a good reputation with the clerks, even the security people say hello. This entered into my afternoon at the concert, my Christmas itself. I had to keep forcing it away.
Normally I am better at shaking off these things. You have to be when you are different. But I think it's easier to brush off judgements made based on what I look like rather than those that are made about who I am. I think, too, that my reputation is something I deeply value - I always knew that, but I didn't know how big a deal that is to me.
I'm telling you all this now because I've decided that I don't want to take this into the new year. I want to leave it behind. While I will still have to deal with this next year, I still have an active complaint to process, I want this out of my head. One of the best ways I have of doing this is taking what is going on in my mind and putting it on paper.
I normally don't ask favours of you, as my readers. But I am going to now, I do want comments on this blog post, but please try to refrain from telling me what I should or shouldn't feel, what I should or shouldn't have done, why it's not a big deal, don't tell me how you would have handled it better or give me advice about it at all. I'm really not strong enough for those things at the moment. Please too, if you know where this is or the store I am referring to, please don't contact them on my behalf, I fight my own battles. What I hope from this is simply support. Sometimes that's all that people want.
For me, that's what I need.