The year was 1984.
Mom and dad were about nine years removed from having left their ancestral home of Nigeria for the United States of America. They’d sired three children in that time-two girls and one boy. For my parents the children were the most important pieces of the American dream that they were aspiring to bring to fruition.
In addition to producing three children, my parents were taking other important steps toward the realization of the American ideal state, as both of them were toiling for long hours at full time menial jobs that were beneath them while attending classes at the local universities — Dad was attempting to secure his master’s degree from a Jesuit University and mom was pursuing a bachelor’s of economics degree at the local city college. My parents were the kind of immigrants that America supposedly wants, although I doubt that they would be allowed to enter the country today without an inordinate amount of hassle.
Somehow my parents had been able to scrimp and save enough to purchase two extremely used cars for travel, and a small apartment dwelling on the east side of town. Think of the apartment as a small box and the two cars as the square shaped exhaust emitter (1971 Toyota) — dad’s car of choice — and the white monster (the 1977 Ford), which mom preferred to drive. The apartment and the cars were emblematic of a life that was bereft of ostentation.
As you can probably imagine, money could be a pretty scarce thing for our family. Dad was unrelenting in reminding us of this fact, often gently chastising mom for her propensity towards spending money on “nonsense” items. Our economic and social status left us with a finite amount of options when it came time for us to shop for the things that our family needed. There were regular trips to the King Soopers for groceries, our choices for other necessities like school clothes and supplies were mostly limited to the local Kmart and Montgomery Ward stores.
Dad drove us to the local Kmart in the sputtering, smog emitting, and square shaped Toyota one day. Once inside the confines of the store, I could see that the mart was bustling with shoppers, as had usually been the case in the glory days of the retail store before automation and online shopping would eventually make marts like these go the way of the dinosaur. I don’t recall exactly what brought us to the Kmart on that day, but I do remember that I was thrilled to be there. Dad was not so thrilled, for he harbored a particular antipathy toward the idea of shopping. Dad’s reason for abhorring the shopping experience sprang from his penchant for hording and saving things. He absolutely hated having to spend money, so much so that I could describe dad’s aversion to spending as a byproduct of instinct. I, on the other hand, loved accompanying dad on shopping trips to Kmart and the other stores because I was given access to the very things that he considered nonsensical and wasteful expenditures.
With dad’s permission I headed straight to the area of the store that housed all of the toys. Since I loved action oriented television procedurals, movies, professional wrestling, and Saturday morning cartoons, I was drawn to the section where the action figures lined the shelves.
I greatly coveted these toys, and my desire for toys on that particular day was akin to that of a hunger pang. I wanted to be like the kids who brandished their action figures while one of their favorite television shows was playing on the television airwaves. All of the other kids that I knew at my elementary school bragged about having these toys, and I was sometimes ashamed because I’d never have anything useful to add to these conversations.
As was often the case, I silently bemoaned the unfairness of my having to live without the toys that I coveted, for those other kids — most of whom were not as well behaved as I was — didn’t deserve to have those toys any more than I did. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair if the other roamers of the Kmart toy isles were allowed to go home with the brand new wrestling game or action figure that I wanted and deserved.
While in the midst of being awestruck by the toys, a strange man sidled up to where I was, stationing himself immediately at my right flank. I didn’t pay him much attention at first since I was transfixed by the He-Man action figure that was in front of me. The strange man seemed to be transfixed by something too.
A few minutes passed with the two of us selecting individual toys for inspection before he got down on one knee and began to ask me some questions about a toy that was missing from the shelves. I saw that he was almost completely bald, with a face full of lines, an older man. He was dressed in all blue. Apart from the husband and wife team that sponsored my parents move to Colorado and who’d visited our family for the Christmas holidays every year, he had to be the oldest white man that I had ever come into direct contact with.
The old man seemed pleasant enough, never raising his voice when he was not satisfied with the answers that I gave him. Still, I was a completely unnerved by the sudden interjection of this strange person into my life.
“Is it all right if I show you something,” he said.
I nodded my ahead in the affirmative. “Yes.”
He reached for his back left pocket and pulled out his black wallet. He used both hands to position the wallet in a prominent position before me. When he flipped the wallet open, revealing a shiny silver law enforcement badge, my seven-year old heart began to skip some precious beats. It was then that I knew that I was the one who had arrested the attention of this strange individual.
It was my first time seeing a law enforcement badge in person, but I knew what the brandishing of the badge meant. I’d watched the evening news on the black and white television that my family owned and I’d watched all of the cop shows. Law enforcement — a security guard in this case — only brandished their badges before people who they thought were criminals. The icy blue eyed security guard seemed to think that the skinny, seven year-old black son of an immigrant that he was staring down was one of the bad hombres.
He asked me again if I knew anything about the WWF wrestling game that was missing from the shelf.
“I don’t know,” I said, exasperated and weak from this interrogation.
His questioning became more aggressive. In a fit of instinct, I turned my head away from the security guard, with the hope that I would behold what I coveted more than anything now: my dad’s familiar face. My heart sank a little more when all I saw was the empty K-mart thoroughfare. The security guard shifted a bit so that I could see his face again, the face of my enemy.
Terrified beyond comprehension, my mind went to all sorts of different places. I was sure that I was going to be placed in handcuffs, forced to perform the walk of shame through the store until we reached the cold and gray concrete room, where I would be subjected to more intense interrogation techniques. After failing to answer questions, I would eventually be dragged off to a prison cell for bad children. I was on the verge of tears.
And then I was saved.
A group of kids about my age scurried into our view, immediately catching the attention of the security card. One of them looked to be carrying the toy that he had be haranguing me about. The guard quickly rose to his feet without a word, and began his pursuit of the giggling black boys. Relief swept over me as I watched the old hunter disappear behind a corner. I went to find my father after the trembling had stopped.