Scene: the local market today- it’s a small grocer, not a mega-market. There was an old man pushing a cart. He looked to be a grandfather- wearing a bowling shirt, pants belted high above his natural waist, velcro shoes, Mark Twain-ish white hair. He had a little girl with him, dressed in red and white party dress and maryjane shoes, with puffy pigtails tied with bright red ribbon. The man was white, the child was black.
We entered the sliding doors at the same time- he with the girl, and me alone. The girl was full of exuberance, and danced around the cart, requesting items and expending energy, and kids do in the grocery store. I assumed he might be her grandfather, until I heard her address him as “daddy”. Despite her cheerfulness and general childlike happiness, there was a running diatribe the most toxic criticism I have ever heard directed at anyone- let alone a child. And it never stopped. It was shocking enough that I turned around and asked him if there was anything I could do to help him- I was careful in how I spoke, but his words to the girl left me stinging and stunned. He brushed me off and told me he was fine, and immediately returned to verbally abusing the child.
I didn’t know what to do.
Making my way hesitantly down the aisle, I could still hear him- telling her to shut up, to leave him alone, to stop every last thing, from moving to chatting, to looking what he clearly perceived as the wrong way. I met the eyes of other patrons in the store, and I could see scowls and glances that mirrored my own- by the time I went to pay, the store was very quiet. The people in line were all listening to the same thing I was, and eyes slid over one another in confusion.
He seemed oblivious, and continued his unceasing verbal cruelty.
Had I seen someone physically abusing a child, I wouldn’t hesitate to step in. Instead, I stood in the checkout line, my back burning with indignation and growing horror at the old man, and shifted uncomfortably. I worried about what she might face at home if I approached him again. I wondered if I was over-reacting. I told myself it was none of my business, that a passing observation in a market is not enough to extrapolate a life situation. She remained cheerful and chatty throughout.
I can’t stop thinking about the little girl.