This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.
In my early twenties, I had a roommate, I’ll call Cousin Joe1. He was stocky with long stringy hair and hailed from rural Louisiana. His two favorite things to talk about were 1) clay pigeon shooting and 2) how “everyone in America should speak English.”
I made the mistake of grocery shopping with Cousin Joe one summer day. What an awful experience!
Our first stop was the ATM, where Cousin Joe became irate when asked if he wanted English or Spanish language options. He yelled, Of course I want English. I’m in America after all!
A passerby glared at him and glanced at me. Feeling embarrassed, I shrugged as if to say, That’s Cousin Joe just being Cousin Joe. Internally, I prayed an ATM bug that would cause it to display, “Have a nice day!” in Spanish.
We lived in an area with numerous Spanish-speakers and occasionally heard Samoan and Tongan. This offended Cousin Joe. He’d purse his lips and make a harrumph sound as if the other party might mend their ways, and magically speak perfect English. This bothered me, and I rolled my eyes and hoped he’d mend his ways. Neither of us got what we wanted.
At the grocery store, we split up. I filled my little basket with essentials—ramen and frozen burritos—before I heard Cousin Joe’s outrage on Aisle 7 (Chips, Crackers, and Snacks). He had eyed the “salsa verde” chips and shrieked, Why can’t they just call them “green sauce” chips? Why can’t we all just speak English? By the time I got there, several bags laid on the glossy white tiles around Cousin Joe. I sat on the floor next to him for a minute while his temper cooled.
I told him I’d put the chips back and suggested he grab a half-gallon of rocky road, as it was the only thing that pacified him during the hot summer months. I put the last bag back on the shelf, and my demon brain had an idea: my basket could hold four bags of chips if I stacked them just right. But was this prudent? Cousin Joe dreamt of becoming a burly Navy SEAL and kept a loaded pistol under his mattress. And then my demon mind imagined him opening the cupboards in our little kitchen and “salsa verde” chips hurling themselves at him. I looked at the bags for a long minute and filled my basket.
At the checkout stand, I triple-bagged the chips in flimsy plastic bags so Cousin Joe wouldn’t see them. I told myself it was because I wanted to surprise him, but my amygdala was asserting control and advancing me toward if Cousin Joe sees these, he will murder me.
Back in his car, I blew out a long audible breath and suggested he calm down. Not everything needed to be in English, and “salsa verde” was colloquial. Other people spoke differently and dressed differently, and that was ok. This was my first confrontation with Cousin Joe. Big mistake. Between mouthfuls of ice cream, he treated me to a tirade, which I will not repeat. But rest assured that it contained a white nationalist’s greatest hits. To be honest, I had a hard time focusing on his arguments because I was busy wiping ice cream droplets off my clothes and face.
He ranted for the five-minute drive to the apartment. Once there, I grabbed my bags and jogged inside. I tossed the two bags of burritos in the freezer and went to my bedroom. The door didn’t have a lock, so I pushed a doorstop underneath. Cousin Joe was pretty good about respecting boundaries, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
I sat on the floor and cleared out the two bottom dresser drawers—my winter apparel would have to find a new home. The chips barely fit. I nudged the drawers closed, careful not to make any noise or pop the bags.
I realized that buying the chips was a mistake. It was one thing to argue with a coworker or an old friend from high school. I never worried about my safety. But it was unwise to piss off an unstable roommate who put his second-place trophy for the “Southern States Pheasant Hunt” on a shelf.
I dug out an empty packing box from the closet for my winter clothes. Halfway through stuffing my snow pants in, I paused and dumped everything out. The box wouldn’t hold my clothes. It would hide my chips.
Afterward, I stretched out on my bed and stared at a ceiling stain. Part of the faded brown stain resembled Abe Lincoln’s top hat. What would the 16th President do in this situation? In my mind I heard a voice, Keep your distance from volatile men.
I did just that. I spent days in classes and the library. And evenings in friends’ apartments and the local diner. I patronized a different grocery store (even though it was more expensive) because it was within walking distance. When I saw Cousin Joe, I did my best to be cordial, but each night I doublechecked the doorstop under my door.
Cousin Joe moved out a month later, and I felt a tidal wave of relief. He left nothing behind except an unopened carton of rocky road. Typically, I would’ve felt glee over finding such a treasure—I was a penny-pincher and loved anything chocolate. But not this. I yanked it from the freezer, flipped it in the air, and watched as it did three somersaults. The carton felt icy on my hands as I whispered, Goodbye Cousin Joe.
Without a second thought, the carton and I sprinted to the outside dumpster. Imagining that I was Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals, I did a two-handed slam dunk. My high school basketball coach would’ve congratulated me on my excellent form.
Back in the apartment, I unloaded my box from the closet and stocked our kitchen cupboards with “salsa verde” chips. I left the cupboard doors open, leaned back in a rickety chair, and admired my cache.
Years later, I smile when I see “salsa verde” chips at the grocery store. I’ll even make a special trip to the chips’ aisle just to make sure they’re there, nestled between the Dorritos and Tostitos. So far, they always have been.
And I can’t help but grimace, just a little when I see someone buy rocky road.
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit thinking about what made Cousin Joe tick, what made him behave so poorly. I concluded that he suffered from a syndrome I call “I’m the MIP (most important person), and everyone should cater to me.” All who trespass Cousin Joe’s life must speak in a way that pleases him.
The harsh truth is that Cousin Joe is not the MIP. The universe is indifferent to his existence2, and no one owes him anything. He has no right or authority to dictate what language folks speak.
Just imagine if the tables were turned and a Spanish-speaker harassed Cousin Joe about speaking English. He’d blow his lid and brandish his Glock.
Digging even deeper, Cousin Joe’s feeling of MIP was rooted in a desire to dominate. Dominate the world around him and the people around him. Keeping a loaded 9mm in his bedroom gave him more power than the unarmed folks, like me. Bragging about his shooting awards communicated, I have more power than you—don’t challenge me. And this power emboldened his bad behavior and created an omnipresent unease for the rest of us.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to control your surroundings and secure your future. Lessons in martial arts and self-defense will help you protect yourself. Getting an education will help secure your future. But there’s a line that you cross when you expect other humans to submit to you.
Cousin Joe crossed that line. Many times.
Thanks to Annie Percik, Alex Hareland, Thomas Weigel, Steve Shepherd, Ruhen Hoque, and Soren Berg for reading drafts of this.