Whenever I'm in a food store now, I use it as a comedy club to practice my funny routines. There's so much sadness and humorlessness in this world that who could object, after all? So I had no idea going in that I'd wind up getting threatened with arrest by store security on the way out. The day was yesterday, Friday, September 30, 2011. The place was Price Chopper food store on Washington Street, Middletown. The cause of threatened false arrest was alleged harassment of a customer.
How the heck did a harmless retired trial lawyer get himself in this predicament? I wasn't consciously thinking about how Lenny Bruce really became famous as a comedian until he got arrested during his act, for uttering what today would be some pretty commonplace cuss words.
Yesterday I stopped at Price Chopper on the way back from getting my daily large coffee, three creams, at McDonalds. The time was 10:30 a.m. I needed bread, hummus, and those plastic corn-on-the-cob holders with two sharp metal points so you can hold the hot corn without getting burned. Unfortunately, those little pointed plastic thingies don't also cool the kernels down so you don't burn your upper palette when you chomp in to the burning hot starch.
My first comedic interaction was with the Boar's Head people. I did a little riff on the homonyms in the product's richly-evocative name. "M'am, is this meat guy here a boor, a bore, or boar? Your life and well-being are on the line, lady." The Boar's Head guy played along. "I'm like one of them pigs, but meaner and I have teeth." And I observed that all men are pigs, some of them boors, and most of them pretty boring, especially retarded former trial lawyers with time on their hands to burn in food stores, boring in on the paid employees with senseless quips and boorish comedy routines. There was more to what went on, but, suffice to say, the Boar's Head Guy wound up smiling and kibitzing with me, and the lady went back to her pre-Bob boring preoccupation with monitoring the re-stocking activities of the Boars' Head Guy.
Having finished my first set, I sauntered on over to the more promising Bread and Pastry Department. Now I love to do comedy in that big open space. There are a lot of men working there, all out in the open. I'm not discriminating against women, here. After all, one of the people wearing those silly Boar's Head baseball caps with the pig-headed logo was a woman.
So there were two black guys and a white man right near the stage in the bread-making shop. The stage in that part of the store is the area customers like me perform on, on the public side of the pastry shop, where the three men were putting the finishing touches on some items of bread or other. I asked the tall, thin black guy if he had any of that apple raisin bread for sale. Then, as I usually do to start off a new set, I told them I'm a retired trial lawyer.
"After 35 years in the courtroom, making some 1,820 weekly payrolls, I just up and quit. And in the course of making that change, I also started to go to the black church, First Zion Baptist Church, down there next to the Y." One of the men thought I meant Cross Street AME Zion Baptist, where he goes, but he quickly nodded recognition when I told him the minister at Zion is the Rev. Carleton Giles. "I thought you said you went to Cross Street," I kidded him. He took me seriously and told me he knows a few members of my church.
I told the men that my new church doesn't treat me any differently because I happen to have a lighter skin color. "It's just like they turn off the lights when I come in the church. Not because they don't want me there, and try to fool me into thinking church has been cancelled that Sunday, but because these wonderful people just don't seem to see my skin color. It's just like they turned off the lights when they greet me as Brother Bob." The two black men nodded vigorously in recognition and agreement.
Then I went into the "don't want no trophy wife, no way, no how" riff, and this one, as always, really pleased the bake-shop audience. I'll write that riff up, with no details omitted, in a subsequent post. No Trophy Wife provided a natural segue into my Dancin' at the Mezzo routine, with actual dance steps, included for the same low price of $0.00. There's a lot more to tell about the Dancin' Mezzo experience, but for now I'll just say I squatted down in front of the bakery counter, jumped around like a frog in that full-squat position, and rhetorhically asked the Bread Guys if they think they'd be able to do the squats at my age. This little routine elicited smiles from the entire "within earshot" Team Bakery. The very thought, disturbing as it seems to some people, is pretty funny when you see it or experience it.
As I'm now internally free to be able to do, I showed the Pastry Men a few of my dance steps on the way out of that wonderful comedic performing space where all that dough is kneaded. "How many men half my age can get down in a full front squat like this, wiggle their rears up and down, back and forth, simulating you-know-what, and jump around the floor to all four points of the compass before returning to standing?" All the men laughed, and the tall thin black man with the thin mustache also smiled broadly and told me "Way to go, bro'." I then finished the performance by showing them how the choir enters Zion First Black Baptist on Sunday mornings after Rev. Giles tells everybody to "Face the aisles as the ushers lead the choir into the church." Slow step right foot followed by slow step left foot towards now-stationary right foot, then slow step left foot, and so on.
As I was sauntering slowly away, I said to two middle-aged men in baseball caps, "You can do this too, sir." One of the men turned his head away and down from me, averting my gaze, but broke out an involuntary smile, as if to say either "you're crazy, dude," or "you're right, I could do that, if I wanted to, but there's no way I'm going to want to, at least in this life."
As I was walking towards the west side of the back of the store, past the meat counter and the overhead-high refrigerated display cases holding chicken, meat, and fish, towards aisle 12 where, a woman advised me, "The corn holders are probably there," and, sure enough, they were. The woman worked behind the open meat counter and I told her her catholic (I didn't use that descriptor then, but now, as I reflect back about the situation, it applies to her near-universal knowledge of every item's precise location, aisle by aisle, throughout the store) knowledge of the store and the location of such a small and rarely-needed item as the corn holders, was a most prodigious display of memory.
Going down aisle 12 towards the corn points took me northward towards the front of the store, the check-out counters, and, unbeknownst to me then, the scene of my near arrest.
The Troubles all began as my body involuntarily began to move to the music over the store's loudspeaker system. Please believe me when I say I had no intention of getting caught in the legal nettles of a Store
Security Guard Gone Wild Arrest Scenario. But the One Big Advantage of not being known as a successful comedian is The Always Present Threat of Unjustified Arrest. Once you become well-known, certainly once you're famous, the chances of being arrested for comic insanity in a Price Chopper is well-nigh impossible, unless you rob the president of the company of all his ill-gotten gains, skimmed from the backs of his too-hard-working minimum wage, overworked employees.
So I start doing a little comic riff with the check-out girl and the bagger girl at the check-out register closest to the corn point thing-a-ma-giggees in Aisle 12. And there's a lady checking out, facing me, and she's wearing a tee-shirt with a "New Balance" logo on it. And furthermore, thus, and hitherto, this Party of the Second Part, yours truly being the Party of the First Part, since I started the interaction, says to me, after I said I liked the "New Balance" on her shirt, "Why is that man talking to me?!" to the check-out clerk and the bagger-girl. And I said, "M'am, with all due respect you started our discussion by deciding to wear that shirt today with that New Balance logo. You seem to be a bit unhappy, at least you're not smiling, at all, and maybe you, like I, can find a New Balance in your life." She then did break a smile and I danced on, a little two-step, like the choir coming down the aisle at Zion First Black Baptist, and finally reached the self-serve check-out line.
Waiting for me there was a guy in his mid-30's with one of those Secret Service one-ear earpieces, attached to which was one of those standard-issue curly wires. I asked him if he could communicate with aliens or other worlds with that get-up. For reasons which will soon become clear, he did not crack a smile and did not seem amused. "You're harassing that lady, so just get out of the store." I told him I planned to buy the items I had so carefully selected and assembled for purchase in my hand-held plastic Official Price Chopper Grocery Basket. He told me my business was not wanted there but I insisted I intended to pay for the items. He told me to buy them and get out of the store.
At this point, I began to feel a bit of preternatural perturbance. I'm not sure those words are even appropriate for the context of this story, but I like the alliteration so I left them in. Anyway, I asked him why he wanted me out of the store. "Because you were harassing a customer. That lady who just walked out with her groceries in her shopping cart." "How do you know that I was harassing her. Did you ask her? She actually was wondering at first why we were talking with each other, but eventually she went away happy. I think she feels that you, sir, were harassing her, because you're young, hot, and I'm thinking she thought you were looking her way because you wanted to pick her up and take her home and do who knows what with or to her, sir!"
Then he told me that if I didn't pay for my items quickly and leave, he would call the police. "Oh, yeah, sir, you're really trying to use your best scare tactics now. But I have a right to be here, until and unless you, sir, can come up with a better reason to force me to leave, other than my ugly looks or my age, which is old enough and I'm ugly enough to get the Ugly Man's Discount at many finer establishments than Price Chopper."
"No," Secret Service Boy Wannabe told me, that has nothing to do with it. But this is a Private Establishment and we can throw you out for any reason we decide." "Sir, have you ever hear of the Connecticut Public Accomodations Act? This business may be privately owned, but when you threaten to keep somebody like me out because of my age or other protected category, you're exposing this store to a threat of legal action for damages." "I don't care, sir, go ahead and do what you have to do." "Well stop discriminating against me and I won't have to sue you and your employer."
I also told the guy I'm a retired trial lawyer with 35 years of experience handling litigated matters. He then bold-faced lied to me by telling me he graduated from Yale Law School. "Come on, man, cut the B-S. If you graduated from Yale Law, what the heck are you doing working at Price Chopper as a glorified security guard with an earpiece in your ear? When did you graduate (so I could check him out) Yale Law?" None of your business, he told me. Okay, if you're a Yale-trained lawyer, tell me what the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides? Of course, he remained mute during my challenges.
The threat of police involvement does not faze me in the least. Should the cops arrive at a place like Price Chopper, I'll explain, calmly and in my best lawyer-like display of reason, calm, and good humor, that the security guard never interviewed the woman, never ascertained whether or not she felt harassed, and by whom, and, in short, never did even an incompetent investigation of the slander which had dribbled out of his mouth. So what could they prove I did which was worthy of arrest.
Furthermore, if I did get arrested, I expect the local newspaper if not the Courant would run an article about the arrest. And the reporter would probably want to interview me about I thought had happened. If this got to a jury, I would love to perform a bit for the jurors when it came to the trial. On the facts I gave you about what I did in the Price Chopper store, would you find enough evidence to convict me of a crime? And if you did, the Appellate or Supreme Court of Connecticut might even throw the case out. And if I went to jail, I believe I could entertain the other inmates. A black man who sweeps the floor here at the McDonald's told me the guys at Hartford Correctional Institute would be in stitches with my comedy stuff if I ever were got thrown in with the general population.
Lenny Bruce got his start, as best I can remember, by using an obscenity. Being a comic means you have to look for funny stuff that happens in real life. And finding the funny stuff, the really funny stuff, sometimes means you have to risk going to jail over it. I'm smart enough, and a saavy-enough lawyer, still, to keep myself out of The Big House, unless, that is, I want to go in.