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Loss Prevention

By Nicholas Montemarano
Sunday, June 24, 2007

THEY STARED BACK AT ME COLDLY, THESE STRANGERS WHO HAD NO REASON -- NOT YET -- TO BE ANGRY WITH ME. There were 100, 200, even more I didn't see. I went through them quickly. If I flipped rapidly enough, they made a cartoon, their faces only slightly altered as the cartoon moved forward: a skinny man trying to hold up his pants; a woman handcuffed to a chair; a girl, no more than 15 or 16, pointing at whoever had taken the photo, her mouth open as if she were in mid-scream. There were photos, too, of what these people had tried to steal: a crocodile belt, a calfskin handbag, a gold keychain.

My boss asked me if anything about the photographs stood out to me.

"I'm not sure what you mean," I said.

He laughed, then told me to look again. He wore thick glasses and suspenders that hiked his pants too high above his waist. He had acne scars; his thinning hair was parted in the middle and held in place by some kind of spray or mousse. He spoke tough, but I could tell that he wasn't. More likely, he had been picked on as a kid. He had probably watched too many cop shows on TV.

He asked me if I noticed a pattern.

"I don't know."

"Take a closer look."

I looked at more photos, even though I didn't have to.

"Most of them are black," I said.

"Listen," he said. "It isn't racist to say that. You're just stating a fact."

This was my first day on the job -- my training in loss prevention.

REST ASSURED, THERE WILL BE ROMANCE IN THIS STORY, TOO. I was a security guard; she was a runner on the sales floor. I was already in college; she had just graduated from high school. We both lived in Queens with our parents, but she wasn't bridge-and-tunnel the way I was; she was much cooler: She knew more about music, about clubs, about those parts of the city it was cooler to know about. That she was black didn't cross my mind much, because (here's the part where I expose my own racism) she didn't seem black to me. She had light skin and straight hair, and even she would say, "My parents are Haitian." I found myself saying the same thing to my college friends the following fall when, upon seeing her picture, they said, "So, she's black." I didn't like the way they said that word, and so I said no, she wasn't black, she was Haitian, and again my friends said, "So, she's black." Then they asked me if I had Jungle Fever and if my first-born son would be named Cool.

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