HE WAS A BIG MAN, a big, muscular man with a moustache and everyday he used to return to his store from his afternoon nap at the same time. He would walk into his place, arms swinging expansively, and he would take a seat at the counter and order a cup of coffee as if he were a customer. We would serve him and he would smile and we would smile back, but the truth of the matter is that we were always scared to death. We were always feeling guilty.
Soon he would finish his coffee and soon he would wipe his moustache with a napkin and then he would stroll over to the magazine rack. He knew the stokc by heart and he would start to take a mental inventory, going through the rack from top to bottom, halting sometimes to ask if we had sold a particular magazine. That's why we were nervous.
More often than not we had not sold it. More often than not it had been stolen. More often than not he would greet that news with a temper tantrum. He would stride across the room and take the cash register in his hand and bang it back and forth against the wall. Then he would go through the cash drawer and look through the checks we had accepted. He was a big man, but he lived in fear of shoplifters and had check artists and we, of course, lived in fear of him. He made us feel like criminals.
I thought of him the other day when I went to a store to buy some hi-fi equipment and the clerk there asked for my fingerprints - my thumbprint, actually. It all happened quickly. I gave him my check and the usual two forms of identification and then he took out a giant stamp and whacked the back of the check with it. A big box formed on the back of the check and inside that were other little boxes for my phone numbers and my place of business and for something called "tele Sta. Code" - whatever that is.
It was all so routine. He asked and I answered and then he went to the telephone book to verify the numbers and while this all took some time it was better than paying by credit card. If you do that you still have to supply the two forms of identification but then the clerk has to call somebody and ask for somehing called authorization. The clerk recites some numbers and your name and then the amount of your purchase and then silence - nothing. The clerk just stares at you.
You imagine all kinds of horrible things. You start to wonder if you paid the bill that month or did you, perhaps use the credit card of the company you are having an honest dispute with. You fear for the worst. People are all around. They are waiting to pay and they are watching you and you fear the computer will declare you a deadbeat and that the clerk will say something out loud or, worse yet, seize your card. A friend had his card seized in the bar of a plush New York hotel and he has not been the same since.
So now the clerk at the hi-fi shop is filling out the back of the check and he says nonchalantly, "Your thumb, please," and I start to offer it when all of a sudden I panic and pull back and I refused to cooperate, I think, for civil liberties reasons. You cannot in this world routinely fingerprint a liberal. I leave the store feeling I have struck a blow for something or the other - don't ask me what.
Later I called the headquarters of the hi-fi company and I talked to the division president, a man named Richard Kesslen, and he made a lot of sense. He talked about his losses to bad check artists and how before he instituted the fingerprinting procedure he took in enough rubber checks to "croak" a medium-sized business. He told me how the hi-fi business attracted "paper-hangers" and how the Washington area was particularly bad, this being a transient area and all.
It was all very reasonable and when you came right down to it, it was hard to say how your civil liberties were being threatened. But there was still something about it that bothered me and I realized it when I thought of my old boss and his temper tantrums whenever a magazine walked out of the store or he got caught with a bad check. It was how he always made us feel like the criminal.
Well, the fact of the matter is that more and more we are all being treated late criminals. We are always being asked for two IDs and being frisked at the airport and having our luggage opened when we come back from abroad. We have to have our picture taken just because we want to use a check and we have to go through some sort of grilling when we use a credit card and while I know bad checks are a problem and I know something has to be done, I feel like people do when they have to take loyalty oaths or when they are asked to undergo routine lie detector tests or when back in the 1950s you were told that only people with something to hide took the Fifth Amendment. There is a presumption of guilt, a presumption that you are a criminal unless you can prove otherwise.
It used to be theother way around.