I was standing in line at the customer service counter at my local grocery store, when the young man in front of me turned his head a couple of times and on the third time addressed me, in halting English, with this question, “Why does company put lead paint on toy?” He nodded toward a customer alert printed in huge type and taped to the customer service window.
“It makes the paint shiny,” I said, sort of rolling my eyes to convey my disapproval of that particular technique.
“But what about common sense?” he asked. He gazed at me intelligently through wire-rimmed glasses. This man appeared young enough to be my grandson, and I would be proud to have a grandson who wasn’t afraid to pose important questions, even to a stranger. Based on his accent, I surmised he might be from Russia. He shrugged his narrow shoulders and shook his head, adding, “Where is common sense?!”
“Common sense can be used in different ways,” I said. “I agree with you that it is common sense to protect children from poison. But pure capitalists believe it is common sense to make a bigger profit, no matter how you do it.” He smiled and nodded, and I was instantly grateful that my time standing in line could be spent in one of my favorite pursuits: discussing political philosophy.
My new acquaintance was now leaning in closer to the alert so as to read the small print describing the toy train being recalled. Meanwhile, I became emboldened as my mind presented me with – alas, it is a passion! – political rhetoric. “That’s why I’m a Democrat,” I announced. Soon he would be a voter, I reflected, and perhaps I could set him on the true and enlightened path. I spoke again: “Democrats believe that capitalism should be regulated in order to protect consumers.” He appeared interested, so I continued: “Republicans often believe in pure unregulated capitalism. They think corporations should do whatever they can to increase their profits. It is up to the consumer to beware. But does it make sense for every mother to conduct a lead paint test on each toy she buys?”
I knew I was leaving out part of the standard justification for a free market economy. Republicans typically are convinced that eventually the market will self-correct. Consumers, they reason, eventually wise up and stop buying from companies that produce dangerous or defective products or companies that pollute the environment. But, of course, Republicans also tend to leave something out from the debate: they leave out the part about all the damage done before consumers recognize problems in products and services. Consumers don’t always have a quick and effective way to vote with their pocketbooks. My main point stands: Democrats favor more regulation, Republicans less.
I’ve learned to make these little speeches with casual nonchalance since moving here to the sedate northwest, more reserved than other places I’ve lived. In Texas and in the Midwest, for example, political debate could even crop up among women standing in line to use a public bathroom. And certainly on park benches, and at post offices and bus stops. While living in Germany, I noticed how strangers freely give unsolicited opinions – even prescribing how a certain unruly child should be handled or when a specific yard should be mowed.
Perhaps this young man’s national origins made him more open to conversations with strangers. He seemed, at the very least, as entertained by our dialogue as was I. The customer service clerk, now just two customers away, glanced in our direction, but I doubted if she could hear us through the Plexiglas. Oh, well. I already knew her politics. Once when I was outside this store, arguing with a petitioner who was collecting signatures to do away with the “death tax,” she had come running up to the petition table. Apparently on her way back inside from a cigarette break, she shouted toward the petitioner, “There’s already a million dollar exemption for crying out loud. Rich people don’t need more breaks!” Exactly the point I had been making that fine day. She was a political ally and I took comfort in suspecting she would side with me on this lead paint issue. At the very least, she must have been annoyed in recent days to have had her line clogged up with worried mothers returning shiny little trains.
Now it was the man’s turn to make his return at the counter. As he did this, I busied myself with getting my receipts ready. My turn came next, and the clerk was quick and efficient. Soon I was on my way, sans package of unwanted merchandise. To my surprise, the man had paused.
“You say lead paint make toys shiny?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “In fact, I can tell you something funny about that. Do you know Bill Maher on TV?”
“He’s a satirist and a comedian. He said that it’s ironic that Americans just love things that are bright and shiny. And now, we are literally being poisoned by the stuff that makes thing bright and shiny.”
He laughed a hearty laugh.
“That like in my country, we, too, have joke,” he said. “In Russia, we all drink vodka, we love vodka. We have joke that we crazy because we say same thing that make other people sick and die — for us, we Russian, it make us healthy, live forever.”
We both broke into laughter. And for a moment, there we were, an American in her 60s, a Russian immigrant in his 20s, standing in the aisle at the grocery store, laughing our heads off at lead paint, vodka, and the perilous human condition.