Jack-in-the-Box and Home Depot Parking Lot
Standing in the gravel of the planter box between the Home Depot and Jack-in-the-Box, we had a rather large circle of up to eleven at some points in our conversation. We were talking about a certain politician’s plans for building a giant wall and the problems it might pose to the US as much as Mexico when we all noticed a man with a stroller crossing the parking lot. He was arguing vociferously into his cell phone.
Because his volume had captured our attention, we were all witnesses as the woman he was arguing with on the phone rolled up beside him in a black Honda Civic. And, trying to pepper spray him, she showered the baby in the stroller.
It took me a couple of whole minutes to register what we had just seen and to grasp that some of my students had been exposed to the particulates carried by the breezy afternoon. Pepper-sprayed a baby!
The whole scene focused on the stroller. A man in a rusty old truck threw open his door as he was still rolling and poured water over the girl to try to stop her awful wailing.
A woman rushed into Jack-in-the-Box to get more water. Another gave me the car’s license number as I was on the line with the Sheriff’s department.
All of us saw exactly what happened. (We just didn’t believe it.)
I dismissed the students and stayed around to offer my statement. The man who’d been sprayed could not hold his daughter because, just as she, he had cayenne oils all over his clothing, skin, and hair.
Because she was too young to have words, she continued to shriek after paramedics arrived and treated her.
Daniel, one of the English students, asked me in Spanish, “Who would pepper spray a baby?” Though I knew it was a rhetorical question, I responded, “It doesn’t make sense in any language.”
On my way home, the afternoon’s events raging in my brain, I carelessly wiped my sleeve across my face. My lips burned nearly as much as my mind.
In class, the next day, we debriefed the incident. One student confided that she could think of little else. Another, a veteran, shared that, were we in battle, this woman would be guilty of a war crime.
*According to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” Start with an unequivocally evil act, and help readers empathize with, but not condone the actions of, the evil-doer. This reminds me of a poem titled “The Torturer’s Apprentice.”
The Torturer’s Apprentice
by Doug Anderson
Almost a man now,
he used to shudder
when the old man
slipped hatpin under fingernail
but now he’s got
the master’s calm,
the seducer’s whiskey drift
to ply his subject
to give up his neighbor, tease
from him how many,
where and when.
Next month he’ll have his first,
no more dabbing the old man’s brow
with a cool towel,
no more sopping up the blood,
to mask the lingering stink
of fear and anguish.
They’ve saved a little nun
for him, some dear thing
who still believes
that deep down people
(From the anthology Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, FROM Curbstone Press, edited by MartÍn Espada. Get the collection for the rest of this poem. It is a powerful anthology.)