Tuesday, November 11, 2008


One of the many interesting things about the transition from military life to that of a self-employed business person, is that it has changed the definition of, well, almost everything. Here's a less than profound for-instance. During an adult lifetime spent in the military, cruising around to some of the world's least desirable places, "Squatter" was how I thought of myself in most foreign countries. Certainly, I considered the political aspect of the term: that we were unwanted temporary residents of whatever port we'd crashed for that particular 3-6 day span. But mostly, it was even more fundamental than that. That is to say: You didn't ever SIT on a toilet in east Europe or west Africa or, say, in certain southern Georgia gas stations (even assuming there was somewhere to sit, which wasn't always the case). You squatted and worked your little excremental muscles to direct the stream in what you hoped was generally the right direction, wiped what you could with toilet paper you had stuffed in a pocket for the evening and left without looking back in the hopes that whatever vermin resided there would be so impressed by your unflappability that they'd leave you alone. This concept served me well for more than 16 years and allowed me to escape such notorious armpits as Lagos, Nigeria and Naples, Italy without incident.

Now that my most exotic destination is West Bank Street in Petersburg, I've refined the concept of squatting to serve my civilian needs. Over six months of looking through the glass bowl of small town central Virginia, "Squatter" has come to mean those members of our society who make a living out of glomming free stuff from local businesses. I should point out here that I'm not talking about folks who come in, buy a cup of coffee, set up their computer and use my wi-fi to check their email and surf the Internet for an hour or two. I'm not even implying that coming in and hanging out at the local bookstore without buying something ain't cool. The whole point of having a comfortable seating area, wi-fi and coffee is so that people feel welcome to come in and chill for a little while. I'm mostly talking about the professionally unemployed folks who make up a sizable minority of Petersburg's population, typically on some form of disability payment, who literally have nothing else to do besides hang out either in the streets or in whatever business they've selected as the day's mark. I know this probably sounds mean-spirited and petty because, without firsthand experience with Petersburg's storied partnership with Central State Psychiatric Hospital AND the city's cultivation of a Section 8 housing market cities four times its size would envy, I would have thought so too. I've read some references that estimate that over 40% of the population is disabled in some way, and it's a well-documented fact that the literacy rate here hovers around 60%. This is certainly not the fault of the people who are disabled, and I don't put it on them, but it does lead to a somewhat dysfunctional city. So here, without my trademark tendency to exaggerate, is a sampling of descriptions of my Squatters to date.

Squatter #1 skulked in a minimum four of the six days per week I was open during my first couple of months. Some days, he'd sit on the wall outside waiting for me to open, but always, he was here by the time I'd been open an hour. Ex-military himself, he apparently believed this gave us instant rapport and would set up base camp on one of my couches and proceed for the next five to seven hours to hang out with his new vet buddy. He didn't even leave to eat, he laughed and talked loudly to himself, he got up and grabbed books periodically to use as reference material for whatever project he had spread out over half the seating area. He talked to me almost constantly as I worked on the administrative tasks required to run the business during my slow times. It exhausted me to keep being nice when all I really wanted was soem quiet, but I convinced myself that even this wasn't so bad--he was a nice enough fellow, just seemed to have some social adjustment issues. Then he also developed the tiniest little annoying habit of insinuating himself into conversations with other customers. Finally, after the fourth customer commented on his unsolicited comments, we had to have the "appropriate amount of time to be spending here" talk. This was my first time kicking someone out, and I felt like an absolute ass. In spite of exercising as much tact as I could muster and reassuring him that he was a good person and it was nothing personal, it was like I'd kicked the poor guy in the face. I haven't seen him since, but I HAVE refined my squatter confrontation technique on a couple more.

Squatter #2, I can't actually pigeonhole as a squatter: we'll call him a polite and likeable gentleman with a job and slight squatter tendencies. #2 would come in about once a week and browse the fantasy and graphic novel sections, then settle down with his chosen paperback, reading sometimes the entire book before putting it back on the shelf. Alternately, he would fall asleep on the couch and I'd have to wake him up and tell him this really wasn't the appropriate place to nap. He was always extraordinarily polite and solicitous of my well-being, and he sometimes bought an item, so having "The Talk" with him was a tough call. I mean, what kind of petty jerk squabbles with a customer over a couple of paperbacks? Our Squatter/landlord relationship finally ended after his third fully read Jim Butcher novel made its way back onto the shelf unpurchased. I took him over and gently showed him the difference between the spines of all the unread books and those he had read. Soft covers that have been read are easily distinguishable because all the other spines in the bookcase are pristeen, and the ones that have been read have noticeable creases in them. Barnes and Noble may be able to afford to replace them, but no small bookstore can. Fortunately, squatter #2 got the message and has since turned into a regular customer who DOESN'T read entire books without buying them. Come to think of it, he hasn't been in to sleep on the couch in a while, either. Ah, a success story.

That success was short-lived, however, as Squatter #3 has been my most challenging case. Squatter #3, you see, is transgendered, not that there's anything wrong with that. But before I knew her as a him, I had noted that she had come in once and hung out for an extensive amount of time, reading a couple hundred pages of a couple of books and making copious notes out of them, even taking her shoes off to get a little more comfortable on her first visit. So I had already filed her under the "Potential Squatter" category. The second time she visited, she informed me (and everyone else who happened to be in the store that afternoon) that his name was Keith (not his real name) and that he was transgendered. Roger that, good on you, I went on to shelve some more books. He went on to talk fairly extensively and somewhat graphically with a friend of mine who happened to be in having a cup of coffee (see how that works?) about the procedure for transitioning. Now, although this was beyond the scope of what I feel like I ought to hear in a bookstore in the course of a business day, he seemed to need someone to talk to, and my friend seemed to not be offended. Neither of us encouraged any personal details, but what the hell? Let him talk for a few minutes. Until one of my little blue-haired Daughters of the Confederacy rolled in and I hit the panic button. Fortunately, with the help of my friend, we managed to avoid the impending train wreck. I talked loudly with the little old lady about the weather until my friend could steer Keith onto safer conversational ground. Next time I saw Keith, he was railing about how someone or other was dissing his decision to live as a man, and since he considered me an open-minded person, wanted me to help him find help. So I did some digging around and sent him off with the web address of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered group out of Richmond and off he went to research the new possibilities. Well, he came back the other day to report his progress, loudly, with two of my good conservative Civil War historians from Prince George County in close attendance. Now, don't get me wrong. I couldn't give a crap that Keith is living as a dude and don't really consider it any of my other customers' business. My problem with Keith is this: he MAKES it my other customers' business, and most of my other customers definitely would rather not be involved. In other words, it's like this has become the testing ground for various over-the-top strategies to be acknowledged as a dude. This particular day, he was standing up here at the check-out counter, looking like a badly dressed woman, talking in a woman's voice to the retired Air Force guy and the Civil War historian woman, getting into a grip contest with the man, and telling the woman he'd hold his strength back when shaking her hand because she's a lady. He introduced himself as Keith and got into a mock sword fight with retired Air Force as he was telling me he had resolved his "issues" and gotten happy with himself. I prayed he didn't elaborate and held my breath until the old folks left. And this really sticks in my craw, because I don't want to get into the habit of playing morality police based on my perceptions of what my more conservative customers consider moral. If some of my customers are offended by Keith's decisions or actions, isn't that a problem between them and not me? I don't want to get into the habit of babysitting people for appropriate behavior, especially when appropriate is such a subjective term. But where I draw the line, where I HAVE to draw the line is at the bottom line. If his behavior loses me customers, and I feel like it eventually will, then I have to have "The Talk" with Keith next time he's in.


Christina Jumper said...

This is the best that I've read from you. I look forward to your humor as there is none in the Capital region! I said hello to my neighbors and was shot a look - I forgot I'm not in Petersburg anymore :-(

Kristy said...

Thanks Christina. It is a different world up there in the metropolis. I hope you're well, and adjusting to your new life.