Who's Minding the Store?

In the film Falling Down, the out-of-work defense industry engineer played by Michael Douglas abandons his overheating car on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway ramp and sets out on foot across the urban jungle to find his way home.

When he walks into a ghetto grocery store to get change for the phone, the surly owner, who happens to be Korean, tells him he'll have to buy something first. So, reluctantly, he gets a can of Coke from the cooler and plunks it down on the counter.

"Eighty cent," the guy tells him, in broken English.
The crewcut Douglas character--whom the police later dub D-FENS, after his vanity license plate--expresses outrage over this exorbitant cost, which won't leave him with enough money to make his call. And when the proprietor, having suddenly produced a baseball bat, orders him to get out, he goes ballistic, grabbing the makeshift weapon away and proceeding to lay to waste shelves of similarly overpriced goods.

For the audience, it's a thrilling moment--the first of many in this satisfying flick. Who among us, after all, has not had the urge to bust up an establishment whose stock in trade is ripping people off?

But that's not how they do things down in Akron.
When Rubber City residents want to get back at some foreigner who's operating a store in the community they consider "theirs," they simply take to the picket line and run the guy out of business.

Earlier this fall, the denizens of a West Akron 'hood mounted just such a boycott, on the basis of nothing more than a single customer's unsubstantiated complaint that the owner of a Dairy Mart franchise--a Pakistani, wouldn't you know?--had "cursed" at a kid who didn't have enough money to make a purchase.

This woman claimed that, when she tried to intervene on the boy's behalf, proprietor Mohammad Latif proceeded to swear at her, as well--whereupon she dropped the bag of ice she was going to buy and stormed out.

No matter that a review of the store's security videotape by Dairy Mart officials told an entirely different tale. The woman's account was enough to galvanize a weeklong protest by members of "the community" with enough time on their hands to man a picket line set up in the parking lot.

"WE DEMAND RESPECT" shouted the hastily scrawled signs--though, from what I've read, the sign carriers never actually approached the person they were demanding respect from.

They could've said, "Hey, let's sit down and talk this out." But that would've been too up-front.

It probably would've required the services of a mediator, too, since the guy most likely didn't speak much English--and, it's safe to say, couldn't possibly comprehend the complex workings of urban America at the end of the twentieth century. The deal, Mohammad, is that only black people can "disrespect" black people, you dig?

At the end of the week, Dairy Mart sent the poor Pakistani packing and closed the place. And the giddy protesters celebrated by holding up signs that proudly proclaimed, "WE WON."

Only, the question is: won what?
Now, instead of buying overpriced goods from an allegedly "disrespectful" merchant, the locals are faced with the daunting task of finding transportation to get to some distant store. So much for the concept of "convenience."

Am I the only person who finds this development more than a little disturbing?

Let's try putting ourselves in the storekeeper's place for a minute and walking a few feet in his shoes, OK?

Can we agree, at the outset, that running an inner-city Dairy Mart pretty much is a drag? I mean, the outlet two blocks from where I live was robbed five times in three weeks--twice in a single day!

For the honchos who operate this chain, "security" is a height chart posted next to the front door--the theory being that, if the clerk hasn't been mortally wounded, he or she can at least take the robber's measurements and let the cops know how tall a person they should be looking for.

And, if out-and-out armed robbery isn't enough to worry about, there's the more pedestrian problem of shoplifting--a crime that'd probably cost you a hand in Pakistan.

The simple fact is that kids steal from stores, OK?
And, if they're not busy liberating stuff from The Man, these future leaders are fighting off boredom by hanging around and getting in the way of the paying customers--which is why virtually every convenience store I've ever seen has some hand-lettered sign on the door limiting the number of "students" in the place to two at a time.

What's more, are we to believe that kids never "curse" at store clerks? That they're never "disrespectful"?

Hell, from the Pakistani's point of view, trying to score an item without enough cash to pay for it was no doubt the height of disrespect: "What, I'm supposed to cut you a deal on a pack of gum?"

The operation of inner-city stores by foreign-born "outsiders"--from L.A.'s Koreans to Arabs here in Cleveland--has become almost a universal phenomenon across this melting pot of a country. Why do you think Matt Groening put that earnest East Indian, Apu, behind the cash register in The Simpsons' fictional town of Springfield?

And it's understandable that the locals are resentful of these people.
But how is it that every immigrant and his brother seems to have the wherewithal to score a convenience-store franchise?

Well, unlike so many poor Americans--both black and white--who blow their hard-to-come-by cash on stuff like cigarettes, cheap booze, crack, and lottery tickets, your basic JCO (just came over) knows how to squeeze a buck until it bleeds. And, often as not, he's brought some "seed money"--a nest egg built with contributions from family members and friends back in the Old Country, as well as his own squirreled-away savings--with him on the boat.

Rather than go that route, though, the West Akron blacks, who've banded together in a grassroots group they call--what else?--"The Community," are demanding that Dairy Mart simply give the closed franchise to one of their own. "We're going to control our own destiny from here on out," announced one angry member.

As if black people are gonna run a store any differently from the "foreigners."

But that, the chain's officials point out, would amount to the very thing these folks are so dead set against: namely, discrimination on the basis of race.

And somehow, I can't believe that this is what Rodney King had in mind when he made that impassioned plea about all of us just getting along.

David Sowd's e-mail address: [email protected]