The demography of Western Pennsylvania varies from Kentucky-esque to straight Detroit. Pittsburgh is among the most hipster cities in the country, yet some towns on its outskirts are rife with Trump 2016 signs, disabled vehicles, overgrown weeds, and above-ground pools. This weekend, I left my quiet corner of the country to visit friends a half hour east, near the foothills of the Appalachians.
I stood out immediately among the small town’s folk when I stepped out of my low-slung coupe sporting newer shoes, a pastel shirt, and a nice watch, and moseyed into the cracked and crumbling parking lot of a derelict, rural mall. I was surrounded by pickups and rusted work vans, not a set of sleeves to be seen.
I followed my friends into a farm supply store; the Walmart of the Laurel Highlands. We were greeted by aisles marked by hand-drawn signs and free popcorn. With no conceivable purpose for being in the store, I just wandered, looking at the merchandise and then back down at my phone.
The sales associate began following me, first at a distance, then in closer proximity. Every associate in the store, it seemed, asked to assist me. They approached me with increasing suspicion and I was oblivious to the fact that they had tagged me as a shady character.
I pressed on, failing to realize that I was being watched. I continued to check out the weird tools and then my Snapchat, as I ambled slowly between the groups of Browning tank tops and dirty lime green construction shirts. I was the most cosmopolitan person within 20 miles and it was an uncomfortable honor.
At last, I found my way to the rear of the store, near the manager’s office. As I stooped down to face the water fountain and wash away my residual hangover, the associates circled me and the manager/owner approached me.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Now, I didn’t want to lie and say I was there to shop – I wasn’t. I had no intention of buying anything.
“I’m just here with my friends. We’re not from around -”
He cut me off. “Oh, so you’re in here taking pictures of my merchandise? Scanning my labels?”
“Huh? No. I’m not really looking to -”
Again, he cut me off. “You comp shopping? You with Tractor Supply? Lowe’s?”
“Wait, no. You got me wrong. My friends over there – they have a full cart of stuff. They’re actually buying stuff. I’m just with them. I’m from outside the city. I’ve never seen some of this stuff before. I’m just checking things out.”
“The hell’s that then?” He pointed to my phone case, the kind with a flap for my credit card and ID. “What are you writing down in that thing?”
That’s a cell phone case, sir. I opened the front flap and showed him. I had no pens, no paper.
“OK,” he grumbled. “Just don’t be writing anything down. Don’t be scanning my labels. My associates will tell me if you are.”
Confused, I walked away, back to my group. I told the party about the encounter. As soon as I did, it dawned on me: I had just been profiled.
At this point, I was insulted. I wanted to leave and get on with the trip. A patron nearby witnessed the entire confrontation and must have approached and spoken to the man who had just accosted me moments earlier. The owner stopped me as I worked my way to the store’s entrance.
“Hey, wait a second.”
What the hell does he want now?
“What I did, it wasn’t right. I didn’t – I shouldn’t have stopped you. You weren’t doing anything wrong.”
“Whatever, man. It’s over with. I’m just gonna get the hell out of your store and -”
“Well, I want to make it up to you.” He handed me some heavy, folded piece of paper with a piece of plastic betwixt the folds.
“This is a store card for $25 off your purchase. Again, I’m sorry we… I’m sorry I stopped you. You’re welcome back here anytime.”
I appreciated his apology. I realized people of my ilk get profiled for a reason. Someone like me can’t just walk into a country store all clean-shaven with nice clothes, a nice watch, and a leather phone case. He had every right to question my intentions. After all, it was my fault, not his, that I frightened him.
Just kidding. Fuck him..
Image via Shutterstock