It’s around, oh, 8 p.m. on a Tuesday in early February, when these two guys enter the liquor store where a mid-20s Florida State University undergraduate student, the woman store manager and I are riding out the balance of our shift. The store is empty otherwise.
She’s in the back room, preparing orders. He and I have pulled the shelf stock out, placed the stackers from the floor into openings on the shelves, and the place looks decent for the next day – so the student and I are mostly just shooting the breeze out front. We close in two hours. Then we all go home.
Mondays and Tuesdays are yawners in the liquor biz here in Tallahassee. And as for robberies: the only ones that took place anywhere near us in recent history happened at a small bank across the street from us – and that was considered a preposterous anomaly because it happened three times, all last year.
Other than the bank, though, I’m told no one else near us on our major northeast-southwest thoroughfare got robbed over the last 12-plus months. I’m new to all of this, and had expected the liquor store business to be more dangerous than it is.
But in our high-end store, most of our customers appear to be consistently sane, pleasant and gracious. It’s never like that in the movies, certainly. Go figure.
Our store is situated only four miles north of the downtown, not all that far from the state capitol, FSU and, adjacent to that, Florida A & M University.
So, anyway: these two guys walk in, at a time when my co-register worker is in the bathroom, and the manager continues to punch numbers in the back. So I’m alone behind the sales counter. Me and my neuroses.
These guys are Middle Eastern in appearance, demeanor, and spoken accent. They appear perfectly sober, inoffensive and agreeable, but one of them – the “talker” of the two – approaches me with an odd question.
“Who can we talk to about entering into a co-op with this store?” he asks.
“A ‘co-op?'” I ask. I don’t understand his use of the word, or the context of the question, either. It strikes me as a really odd time of the day to ask a business-type query, too – just walking into a store one clearly isn’t familiar with (they both look uncomfortable) – and these guys exhibit no interest in buying liquor on this night.
The talker then explains, in his broken English, that he (or a group of his) is interested in acquiring ownership of a part of our limited Tallahassee-only liquor store franchise – and while he appears to know we’re part of a chain, and even knows where our head store is, he doesn’t seem to know very much else about us. Like, for instance, that we’re a limited franchise, and not seeking to expand again anytime soon.
I explain that there is no one here to answer his questions, but he’d be welcome to chat with management at our main store in the morning, which is only five miles or so from our store, an easy drive from here.
That should have concluded our conversation, I figure – but it doesn’t. The talker continues to more or less re-ask the same questions, and I’m at a loss as to how to respond.
After 10 minutes, the talker thanks me (his cohort barely audibly grunts the same thing), and finally the two leave. And I’m left standing there, wondering what just happened here.
I go back to tell the manager about my experience, and she says, oh, well, we’ve got visitors from all over the place (read that, planet) with money to spend, and they’re all just looking to unload it someplace in our rapidly growing area.
I haven’t been working in the store long enough to challenge her interpretation of this innocuous event, so I shrug, and head back to the floor, mostly going along with it.
Only, I’m also thinking to myself: …these guys might just be part of some terrorist cell moving into Tallahassee.
How dumb is that, you ask? What’s so bloody special about Tallahassee? Well, for starters (and maybe enders), the president’s brother lives just down the street from us. Jeb Bush is the governor of Florida.
Paranoid much, I’m asking myself? Prejudiced much? Even my young co-worker laughs when I tell him my vague (and likely neurotically overwrought) suspicions.
* * * * *
Jump to the following Monday night around 7 or 8 p.m. and, you got it – two more Middle Eastern guys, also in their late 30s/early 40s, walk into our store – and I’m once again the only individual on the floor. This time, praise be, these guys are here just to buy some liquor. But again (and it can’t possibly be a coincidence, can it?), only one of them does the talking – because the other doesn’t appear to understand one word of our conversation.
This is the Monday, by the way, after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Seattle Seahawks in what was a frustrating Sunday Super Bowl game for both teams.
Regardless, this talker’s first question is also a strange one: did we happen, he asks, to sell either Crown Royal Canadian whiskey or, you know, Chivas Regal Scotch?
For those of you who don’t “do” hard liquor, here’s what’s odd: Generally, those who drink top-drawer Canadians don’t drink top-drawer Scotches – least of all two of the best known, expensive, and iconically-labeled and packaged whiskeys of their types.
The question might be compared to walking into a food market, for instance, and asking if they sold either Coke or Pepsi there. From a salesperson’s standpoint, it’d be, like, well, duh. For what it’s worth, these guys settle for a 750ml of Chivas.
So, me, I’m thinking – oh, damn, here I go with my undue suspicions once again.
It gets more knotty for me. These guys have just driven into town, the talker says, and want to know where they can get a motel room. They apparently exited I-10 onto our well-traveled street and spotted our store (across the street from a well-lit Publix shopping center, a Burger King and a popularly-burgled bank).
By now, a co-worker has joined our conversation, and he and I both strongly encourage these men to drive back to I-10, and head west two more exits where they’ll find a wide selection of motels.
They then thank us – the talker does, anyway – and he adds the following (with his eyebrows raised) as they both head out our door: “Hey, how about Pittsburgh! Okay!” He waves then and turns, while his friend disappears into the night ahead of him (as if he desperately needs some fresh air).
Think of me what you will, but I swear these were the words of a guy who’s never watched an entire NFL game in his life. And he just gave us a verbal thumbs up.
Like any of us gave a rat’s petoot about Pittsburgh winning that peculiar Super Bowl.
* * * * *
It’s now two weeks or so later, and I’m on the job (during the day) with my store’s young assistant manager. I don’t recall our topic of discussion, but in any case he breaches our talk with his casual if abruptly-posited conviction that the Tallahassee governor’s mansion can easily be targeted by terrorists, and it could happen most any day now – who’s to say?
He clearly recalls other pairs of Middle Eastern men showing up both in our store and in others in our chain over the last month, he adds. A cells-a-thon, maybe?
I don’t like the sound of this, of course, and the balance of our brief conversation leads me to imagine that if maybe a small nuke goes off, we’ll all end up as toast.
“Could happen,” the assistant manager shrugs.
March arrives. There are no bombs, no shootings, no nuclear detonations, and no more pairs of Middle Eastern male visitors frequenting our liquor store chain.
And I’m thinking, let’s just chalk all of this up to paranoia and plain old prejudice.
Those guys that came into our stores were just guys, struggling with our complex and nuance-riddled language. Like so many people around the world, they not only wanted to experience the real America but they wanted to do it Florida-style.
Is there anything wrong with that?
Well? Is there?
Only I don’t feel comfortable these days with any of this. I want to like my global neighbors – even those who buy up major East Coast seaports. For that matter, I even want to like my own federal government, too. Only I just can’t relax with it.
I’m too-often afraid.
Worse, I’m exhausted.
A lot of my neighbors don’t seem to feel these things. Of course, they’re in denial.
Can anything good result from any of these sometimes-petty tensions, no matter how trivial or lame they ultimately prove to be?
God help me – God help us – but I just don’t see how.
Donald Croft Brickner lives in Tallahassee, Florida. Questions and comments may be emailed to him at: [email protected]
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