I felt like sharing a story about my dad. This is about something that happened to me back in 1994 when I was 17 years old. This is difficult to write about and I can never recall this event without crying. I don’t know why, but I remember this incident often and it always comes back to me. I know this is a long post, but if anyone gets a chance and some time, to read this it may perhaps give you another perspective.
I doubt it though…….. Perhaps not.
I grew up and spent most of my life in Brooklyn, NY but have since moved to Houston, TX with my wife and kid. I was born in the Soviet Union but immigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was a 5-month-old baby, so America is the only home I know, and English is my primary language. I do however speak a bit of Russian as well so I am bilingual. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York we were a generally white middle class, secular-Atheist / ethnic Jewish urban living family. We never lived like kings but never starved either.
Back in 1994, I was 17 years old and working in a summer camp as a DJ. My Dad was also working there teaching a computer class. The town was Tobyhanna, PA. A piece of shit little town in the middle of nowhere. But let’s be real. The majority of America is a piece of shit little town in the middle of nowhere. These are where many Trump supporters are coming from. Nobody from Paris or London says “Let’s go on vacation to Fredonia, NY. or Lynchburg, VA Yeah!” I’m not making fun of small towns because they have smaller populations, smaller shops, and smaller transportation networks. I pity small towns because many of their residents have smaller minds.
I remember my Sociology teacher in Brooklyn telling me “You think you are white? You’re only white because you are in Brooklyn. Leave the city and you’ll realize soon how non-white you truly are.” I soon understood what she meant when I went to upstate New York to study and had someone refer to me as “her little foreign friend” even though I’ve been in the U.S. my whole life. I’ve been here longer than her since technically she was 10 years younger than me. She was 10 years younger than me and I was her little foreign friend! This is the small-town mentality. But I digress.
So, I was 17 years old in Tobyhanna, PA. To me, a small town in the middle of nowhere. But to the residents that live there, simply their home.
I walked into a Walmart with my father. He was a smoker and had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket like most smokers do. A young snotty female security guard approached him suddenly and insisted that my father empty his pockets immediately. I told him to refuse but my father being the cooperative type complied immediately. He never wanted any trouble from anyone. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was very peaceful and never wanted any trouble. She saw the cigarettes and accused him of stealing them from the store. She had a smirk on her face and told him that he stole it and that she saw him do it. Now, I was a rebellious young man and had no love for my dad at that time. We never really got along too well. However, my father NEVER knew the meaning of the word “steal.” He didn’t know what it meant to take something that didn’t belong to him. This was not part of his vocabulary.
My father told her that these are his own cigarettes and he got them from another store previously. She insisted that he prove it by showing a receipt. He didn’t have one. Who carries a fucking receipt around with you for cigarettes that you purchased previously from a different store with cash?!
He said, “What do you want me to do?” The security guard responded
” 1) We can call the police
2) You can pay a 50.00 fine, or
3) We can forgive you and you can just pay for the pack of cigarettes if you sign a sworn statement admitting that you stole them, and I caught you!”
She said this with a smirk on her face. She was clearly proud of herself for catching this immigrant thief in the act.
I told my father in Russian, “This is bullshit. Don’t sign any confession. She can’t do anything to you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Screw her. Turn around and Just go!” Of course, my father refused. He would never do that. It wouldn’t be proper. Besides, he was always afraid of authority even though he never did anything wrong! Maybe it was ingrained in him from the past. Maybe he still had it left over from the Soviet Union. I don’t know.
The security guard heard me speaking in Russian to my father and addressed me immediately. She insisted “What did you say to him?! What are you talking about?!” I told her “None of your business!” She didn’t like the fact that we were speaking Russian because she couldn’t understand.
My father told me “Shut up son.” He said “Don’t talk Russian to me. She won’t know what we’re talking about and think we are planning something against her. Besides you know she will react negatively to people who will speak a foreign language.”
I started laughing as did he. The security guard then demanded a response. “Why are you laughing?” I replied to her, “Because this is ridiculous. He didn’t take anything.” She replied smugly, “He did. I caught him!”
My father refused to fight. He refused to deny. He refused to tell her to fuck off and just walk out and leave the store. What my father DID do is the following….
My father said to the security guard (and I will remember these words FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE):
……….” I’LL DO WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO DO.” ……..
(…..I had to take a 10-minute break because it is hard for me to write this. I write this with tears rolling down my cheeks…..) Ok back to writing.
Anyway, now she decided that simply having him pay for the cigarettes that he didn’t even buy there wasn’t enough anymore after she heard him and I speaking Russian to each other. That seemed to piss her off more. So now a fine had to be paid. I think it was around 50.00 – 80.00.
My father had to sign a confession and admit guilt which he did without question. I said, “Dad, what the hell are you doing?!” “Shut up!” he told me. “Stay out of this!” “So”, she asked him. “You admit to stealing these items?” “Whatever I have to say to make this go quicker” responded my father. “Do you admit to stealing this?” “Yes” said my father. “Do you confess and admit to stealing these items and that I caught you doing so?” “Yes, I did” said my father. “And you agree to return the items and pay the penalty?” She asked. “Yes” he responded. “Please sign this confession and pay the fine here.” He signed the confession, admitted guilt, and paid the fine.
………..(I have to stop writing so I can cry once again)………….
Ok. Continuing… So, I was so angry and confused and hurt at seeing all this. I was still a teen. I didn’t know what was going on or what to make of seeing my father go through all this. I wanted to punch him in the face.
“Why the hell did you do that you asshole?!”
“Son, what did you want me to do?” he said. “I’m an immigrant and speak with a strange accent. We’re in a small town in the middle of nowhere. You wanted me to deny guilt and fight her? It would have taken time. She would have called the police. The police are small town cops. They know her. It would have gone to the sheriff. He is probably her cousin or relative and knows her as well. It would go before the local judge who also is probably related to the sheriff and they all know each other in this small town. And you want to know the truth? An out of town immigrant stranger with an accent who doesn’t look like them wouldn’t stand a chance. They all know each other and wouldn’t believe me anyway. I would’ve gotten charged immediately and it would only make it worse. So, what is the point of fighting?”
As you can probably tell, this is very difficult for me to talk or write about. I am crying now as I write this. I probably lost a little respect for my dad that day though admittedly I never had a great relationship with him to begin with. But I can understand somewhat why he did it. I would have fought tooth and nail, but I grew up with a different background then he did.
This incident happened when I was maybe 17 years old and it still haunts me till this day and I’m 40 now. I could never get it out of my mind and it changed the way I looked at things forever and probably changed my perspective on my dad. It affected me profoundly because I think at that point, for at least a brief moment, I really understood what it meant to be an immigrant in small town America. What it was like to be treated like an outsider in your own home. Even if you’ve lived here your whole life.
My father is dead now, but he never knew how this incident changed me and how his refusal to stand up for his rights affected me in a devastating way.
My family and I are Atheists, so I don’t believe the spirit survives the body and neither did he. But I wonder if he was alive and knew that I cry every time I remember this incident, what he would say to me or if he would have done it differently.
I doubt it though…….. Perhaps not.