The Fixer

So this guy came into my store once a month.

I worked at an art supply store while in college.

This guy comes in once a month and he buys $20 worth of fixative.

Fixative is a light clear coating that one would use to seal a chalk drawing or watercolor painting. It comes in an aerosol can and (at that time) cost about $1.25 a can. Students and artists buy a can once every six months or so to "fix" their various projects.

So this guy comes in and buys $20 worth of fixative once a month. However much $20 will buy he buys it and lets us keep the change. Every month.

One day a woman calls. She describes this guy perfectly: 6' tall, 250 lbs., thick denim jacket, late 30's, salt and pepper hair, buys fixative. He's her son. He's addicted to sniffing paint (among other things) and he's killing himself with our product. Dollar-twenty-five fixative would be about the cheapest way to get this kind of high.

Our store manager takes the call and she's simpathetic; 20 years sober. She calls us together and lets us in on the story. We all thought something was a little off about this guy anyway. We're all in agreement that we're not going to sell him the fixative anymore.

So this guy comes in on a usual day, brings an armload of fixative up to the counter and lays out his twenty dollar bill. The cashier politely explains that she can't sell it to him anymore. He thinks she's joking and he presents an I.D. as if he's being "carded."

The manager is watching from the office window. When it becomes clear that the guy is getting upset over the issue she steps out of the office and inserts herself into the conversation. She tries to be caring but she denies him the fixative. She hands him her business card. On the back of the card she had written a phone number and over the top of it the letters "AA". The guy leaves in a huff.

The guy calls our district manager and gives him an earfull about being denied his purchase. The district manager calls our manager and gets her side of the story. The district manager is simpathetic but concerned: Did we have the right to do this? The legal right?

Our company was privately owned by a group of attorneys so legal advice was easy to come by. By the time our district manager contacted one of the attorneys "the guy" had already given everybody at the corporate office an earfull over the issue.

"The guy" was a woodworking artist and he used the fixative to seal his projects. He lived out in the country so he had to buy a lot of the stuff when he was in town. Thats all. You couldn't get the same quality of product from a hardware or craft store (and the internet hadn't been invented yet) so we were his only source. And he was a Latino, a minority; our white-owned store with its all-white staff was denying a minority the opportunity to express himself artistically.

Our attorney/owner was predictably livid at our foray into racial discrimination.

Our district manager convened us in the office and explained the issue in detail: The fixative was not a controlled substance and it didn't even fall under local anti-graffiti regulations: fixative isn't even paint. And the guy wasn't a minor. And we didn't even have a doctor's note to go on. And who was that woman? His mom? Or his ex-wife? Or a jilted girlfreind? Who knows? If he was really an addict he would have stolen the cans. And addicts don't let people "keep the change." He was a nice guy and a good customer and we had F'd it all up, good intentions not withstanding.

I started to feel really stupid. Like we were all characters on that "Maple Street" episode of The Twilight Zone; viewing the slightest shreds of evidence as proof of some sinister activity and then acting out on our own to save the world only to screw over another innocent individual. And a minority at that. I felt ashamed.

Our district manager had made apologies to this guy on our behalf and sent him a complimentary gift certificate for $20.

A month later the guy comes into our store and picks up his usual armload of fixative. He sets down the gift certificate and our district manager's business card but he says nothing: He doesn't like us anymore. The cashier obliges and he walks out the door, silently letting us keep the change.

That afternoon his car crossed the freeway meridian at over 100 mph slamming into oncomming rush hour traffic killing 3 people (and himself) and injuring dozens. His face had been buried in a paper sack that he had used as an inhaler for the contents of the aerosol cans of fixative.

That day I learned that right and wrong are contextual principles. We're responsible for which way we choose but the fixer of the context is not in our control.