On Getting Stopped For ‘Shoplifting’ In Barnes And Noble

Some fifteen or so years ago, shortly after beginning my professorial employment at Brooklyn College, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble store at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan; then, and perhaps even now, for I’m no longer sure it still exists, this ‘branch’ was the largest B&N store in New York City, one with an extensive selection of college textbooks in a rear annex. That annex was my destination; I wanted to see if some texts I had placed on my syllabi for the current semester were available here by chance, and if so, I could direct some of my students here for their book procurements. My search was unsuccessful; later, I wandered through the main shelves, browsing the philosophy, history, and literature sections before heading for the exits, my tried and trusted backpack slung over my shoulder.

As I reached the doors, my path was blocked by a security guard who asked to inspect my backpack. I handed it over; it contained the usual mix of a spare sweatshirt, my phone, some keys, and a few books. I expected the search to be perfunctory; I had not purchased anything and had no cash receipts to show. It wasn’t.

The guard picked out one of my books–on ‘The Great Game‘–and asked me where I got it from. I replied, ‘That’s mine; I’ve borrowed it from a friend.’ The guard asked me if I had a receipt. I replied (now, a bit tersely), no, I did not; my friend had not supplied me with the receipt when I borrowed it from him. Before I could add anything to make clear to the guard the absurdity of this line of questioning, he had walked off with my backpack. I stared after him: precisely what the fuck was going on? Clearly, I was under suspicion of shoplifting that newish looking book.

The guard returned with his manager, who repeated the question of where I got the book from. My temper rising, I said it was mine, and had been in my backpack when I entered the store. He then asked me why I had so many books in my backpack. I replied, “Because I’m a college professor!” My voice had risen by this time. The guard, watching this exchange, was sniggering. My awareness of this was making my temper rise further, even as I suddenly became aware of the danger I was in.

Were I to lose my temper any more (my backpack was still being held by the guard, and I would have to snatch it off him to leave with it; I didn’t think he would just hand it over), the police might be called in to ‘calm down’ an excitable brown man in post-911 New York City; the situation that was developing would most likely see me handcuffed and marched off to the local precinct for ‘disturbing the peace.’ My eventual release would be of no relief.

My snappy reply seemed to have snapped the manager out of his stupor. He gestured to the guard to hand my backpack over. The guard, still smirking, handed it over. I took it and stormed out. I haven’t been back to Barnes and Noble–any store–ever since.

Thank God, Caitlyn Jenner ‘Looks Great’

The first transgender public figure whom I ‘encountered’ was Renée Richards–thanks to her landmark legal victory in the New York Supreme Court over the United States Tennis Association, which had denied her entry into the 1976 US Open, on the grounds of  their supposed ‘women-born-women’ policy. (Richards–formerly Richard Raskind–had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975.) Shortly after I read about her in a sports magazine, I heard what would become a seemingly constant refrain in most of the superficial responses to transgender persons: “I feel sorry for him. He was a sissy man, now he’s an ugly woman.” Later, in conversations about transgender men, it would be slightly modified to, “I feel sorry for her. She was an ugly, manly woman, and now she’s a sissy man.”

Part of the problem, it seemed, with transgender persons was that they were ‘just plain ugly.’ They weren’t ‘attractive men’; they weren’t ‘attractive women.’ That was the biggest sin of all. If only they could be more ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome,’ then all would be good. If only they could somehow be made to cleave to conventional notions of beauty and attractiveness, if only they could so dramatically transform themselves that no traces of their older self would survive, into thin, sexy women or perhaps brawny, hunky men, the stuff of pin-ups, then perhaps the rest of the world would be able to bring themselves to pardon their otherwise unpardonable attempt to determine their chosen identity for themselves.

Caitlyn Jenner has–thanks to her  elevated public profile–struck an important blow for transgender rights; she has sparked a broad, diverse, conversation about transgender persons and their place in our society. She seems to have been ‘accepted’ by many, though, of course, there were those too, who wrote refrains that were almost exact reprises of the reactions I had heard directed at Richards all those years ago.

But Caitlyn Jenner ‘entered’ our lives on a Vanity Fair cover. Shot by Anne Leibovitz. She looks glamorous and sexy; she has benefited from the attentions of an expert photographer, backed up by a small army of make-up persons, lighting assistants, and perhaps even personal trainers. We might imagine that someone, on not knowing anything at all about Bruce Jenner, might say, “Hey, that’s a mighty attractive sixty-six year old woman.” And a common reaction, indeed, to Caitlyn was that “she looks great!”

Phew. What a relief. Imagine if she didn’t ‘look great.’ Would the ‘freakshow’ conversation start all over again? Of course, it would. We are obsessed with appearances.

There are many, many transgender people who will not be able to ‘transform’ themselves in the way Caitlyn has. (I have no idea what Caitlyn looks like away from the camera lens.) They will not be offered good lighting, touch-ups, a glamorous outfit, and the attentions of those who know how to make us look good. They’ll just look like any ordinary person might. They won’t have public relations help; they won’t have access to sympathetic writers who can help them bring their stories to life. Hopefully, some of the kindness and tolerance on display in the reactions to Caitlyn’s ‘debut’ will be sent their way too.