Well, maybe it's just the heat.
I'm out in California for a few days, visiting John's family. This afternoon, I took a walk (in spite of the near-record heat) up the hill, from our room at the Holiday Inn Express, to the Montebello Mall. I hoped to find a Starbucks and a copy of the Sunday New York Times. Vacations being what they are, I also badly needed the exercise.
I walked further than absolutely necessary, then walked back, found a mall entrance, and managed to decipher the 'You Are Here' map well enough to find: Starbucks. Which carried, alas, no Sunday New York Times. Pragmatist that I am, I decided that, for the moment, caffeine without a newspaper was (marginally) better than a newspaper without caffeine. So I tanked up, and decided to continue my semi-heart-healthy stroll through the air conditioned mall. Coffee in hand, I wended my way up one side aisle, to the next up up escalator, then down an upstairs aisle, to the down the escalator, you get the idea.
The coffee was long gone when I began to think about of starting the walk back to the motel -- which, though hot, would at least be downhill. To get my bearings, relative to whichever escalator I would need, I paused outside a shop window. The Baby Shop, it announced. I recalled that I'd seen a display of theirs in the front window of an empty first floor space. Enterprising and enthusiastic business sense, I thought. I gave a cursory glance over their main window display, even though I've long since grown out of any need for baby clothing, and I was about to walk to the escalator, when something caught my eye.
Suspended by their little arms, in the center of the window, and arranged on a descending row of dowels, were four or five rows of little black crew-neck t-shirts, sized for what I'd estimate to be perhaps two- to three-year olds. Each of these black shirts had a clever saying printed on it in white -- things like 'I'm Hot, You're Not', and 'It's My Turn Now'. And there, front and slightly off-center, was one that gave me a jolt. 'Playground Pimp', it said.
I actually tried, for a few too many seconds, to make these two words mean something else, something other than what I knew they meant. Something perhaps more wholesome and funny and -- what's that other word? Oh, yeah -- appropriate. But even giving many benefits of many doubts, I still came irresistibly back to the same realization -- this was an offensive and inappropriate and possibly even a dangerous shirt for any young child to wear.
But I'm on vacation, I told myself. I'm sweaty from my walk and my coffee, I'm in flip-flops and a t-shirt, I'm a greying 65-year-old white man, slightly buzzed from caffeine, and 3000 miles from home -- what business is this of mine, I asked myself. Looking at 'Playground Pimp'.
I went into the store.
My impressions based on the lower-floor display were erased, by the disorganized array of merchandise and the bad lighting. But I wasn't there to shop for princess dresses. I found the sales desk, and asked if there was a manager about. A small dark man, who looked as though his chief attempts at personal hygiene were an occasional swipe with a rag dipped in Canola oil, volunteered that he was the very person I was looking for. Talking to me through a mouthful of food, and without missing a bite of the limp french fries he was digging out of their partly-translucent paper sleeve. I thought I was ready.
"The black shirt in the window, the one that says 'Playground Pimp' on it -- would that be more appropriate for a boy or a girl?" I asked as he chewed.
His eyes lit up a bit, and he stopped mid-fry, beginning to smile and tell me something, when I repeated, slightly louder, "Playground Pimp? Playground Pimp?"
Of course, I always mean to be so cool and contained and James Bond-like (though I could hardly imagine him stooping to such a nano-conflict), but I've never really learned how to be calmly angry, devastatingly witty and unassailably correct. The Perfect Outraged Customer. Mr Manager knew his advantage almost instantly, and began to protest, not my concern about his choice of merchandise, but my tone of voice, whining a complaint that I'd come into his store yelling at him. And of course, completely diverting any meaningful exchange that might (improbably, of course) have emerged about the actual point of dispute. I knew discussion was hopeless, so I simply turned and walked out, repeating 'Playground Pimp', 'Playground Pimp', louder and louder as I reached the door. Luckily, I have long legs, and the shop was small.
What, if anything, would you have done, in this situation? When, if ever, is it appropriate to point out the inappropriate? This is a sticky issue for me. Now of course, I realize that the manager's reflex, to throw back my increased vocal volume as though it were just as offensive as the idea of a three-year old running around the neighborhood playground with 'Playground Pimp' emblazoned on a tight black t-shirt, was a time-honored argumentative ploy, almost as old as argument itself. I make an observation; he points out that I've mispronounced something; dispute is derailed; nothing is resolved.
So, I'm writing this, so at least (perhaps) one other person on the planet can see it and make up his/her own mind about whether my reactions were called for or not. I am thinking, seriously, of writing to the mall's management group, to make an observation about the general appearance of their mall, and also about some of the display choices made by some of the merchants. And frankly, if this (pardon my lack of restraint) greasy little sleaze wants to feature these objectionable shirts inside his shop, along with mini g-strings and pasties for the four-year-old set, that's (almost) a different matter. (All this without even beginning to address the designer who put this sorry excuse for children's clothing on the shelves)
But -- and I'm not trying to use unwarranted hyperbole here -- I think it's not a bad idea, overall, to keep children safe. I think it's not a bad idea to let children remain in their state of (relative) pre-hormonal innocence, for as long as possible. And, if the over-loud complaints of a wild-eyed vacationer with coffee on his breath somehow reduces, by the merest hint of a percentage point, the chance of even one little pre-schooler being mishandled and abused, because 'Playground Pimp' isn't printed on the front of the little black t-shirt running around by the swing set, then I'll take the hit. I'll be that over-sensitive, politically correct, humorless tyrant.
After all, kids that small can't read -- to them, 'Playground Pimp' might as well be 'Pick Me Up and Squeeze Me'. Somebody, somewhere, should be able to point out the difference.
© 2012 Walter Zimmerman