Saturday, October 26, 2019

Tucson, AZ: A Bully's Ripple Effect

Very, very fresh chicken at McDonald's. North Louisiana. August 2015.

I arrived early for a meeting at a local McDonald's. I bought a senior diet soda for 76 cents. I sat at a small table in one of the restaurant's alcoves. I pulled out my phone to continue reading the e-version of Augusten Burroughs' tragicomic drunkalog, Dry.

The only other customer in the alcove was a man seated at a table by the front window of the restaurant alcove. He tried to engage me in conversation almost as soon as I sat down. I'll call him Stu.

First Stu talked about the weather, how it had turned a little chilly here. But how it didn't compare with the cold of Chicago one time when he was there. Then Stu segued into climate change.

McDonald's in the Marjinishvili neighborhood, Tbilisi, Georgia. June 2012.

But then Stu got into something that was troubling him. The previous day, at the same McDonald's, he'd been the unwilling witness to a man who berated his woman companion. The man told the woman what a worthless human she was, how she was nothing but trouble for him, and so on and so on.

Stu described how distressing this was for him, an observer. Stu relayed his concern to the shift manager. The shift manager said there was nothing he could do.

Stu did not intervene, and this gnawed at him. Was he right not to have? Should he have? The scene he witnessed took him back to when he was a child and he saw how his father heaped verbal and emotional abuse on his mother, and how she - and Stu - were powerless to stop it.

He asked me, a stranger: Should I have done something? What should I have done? He could have had a gun.

It later emerged that Stu had only recently been released from a "long incarceration," and that played into his decision-making, as well.

The abuser's ugly words looped through Stu's mind over and over and over, as did the uncertainty of what he might have done differently. Or the same.

As Stu kneaded and rolled and turned that mental knot with me, it settled into my thoughts, as well, taking me back to a scene in which I'd been that woman, and also to another time, when I'd been a witness who did not intervene, ever-after torn, like Stu, in wondering if I should have stepped up or if it had been the right course to witness in silence, out of respect for the recipient's dignity of self-determination.

The bully's ugly words and the hatefulness with which he uttered them at a local McDonald's in Tucson. They didn't just poison his target. They splashed and burned onto a witness. A day later, albeit diluted, they splashed and burned onto me, and I wasn't even there.

When my friend arrived for our meeting, Stu turned to one of the McDonald's employees, who'd just entered the alcove to wipe down some tables. He began to tell her his story of that bully.

And now I share it with you.

A toxic leak.

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