Death by Tchotchke

While in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I may have thwarted a robbery or maybe caused a mass murder. I don’t know what happened exactly. We were in a tiny store full of tchotchke: elaborate handmade knives folded into wooden handles, brass paperweights, paper globes of old world maps, paper dolls, journals, and stacks of scented candles. The odor of floral, musk, and honeysuckle filled the store. The store was so narrow that two people couldn’t pass down the aisle at the same time. I stood in line to buy a handful of things for my daughter and mother. The cashier asked me whether it was “mathematically the same” to calculate the tax for each item and then total it up, or if she should total it up and then calculate the tax against the total.


“I’m no mathematician,” I said, “So I’m not to be trusted about these things. But in this case, I know it it is the same. There might be some difference due to rounding if you were to compare the amounts. It would be easier for you to just calculate the tax against the total.”

She looked at me as if I might be trying to pull one over on her.

Lisa was looking at rings and asked if they had any in size ten. My mother has large fingers. The cashier fished out a bag of rings and then handed the entire bundle to Lisa. “This is what we have.”

Two men stopped on the sidewalk. One of them carried a bedroll and backpack. He stood at the edge of the sidewalk. He wore a blue baseball cap. The other man wore a hooded sweatshirt with the hood over his head. Over the sweatshirt, he wore a jeans jacket buttoned to his neck. Long hair escaped from his hood and fanned around his face. He came into the store and stood in the narrow space by the door. Lisa leaned down to get a closer look at the rings.

The man in the hood had very long fingers with dirt under the nails. He picked up one of the knives and swayed back and forth for a few minutes, gazing at the sharp edge. Lisa seemed oblivious to him. She put the rings back in the bag and then handed to the cashier. The cashier was busy laboring over the total of my purchase.

“Um, Lisa. There is a man,” I said.

She looked at me and then walked outside and took out her cell phone.

The man in the hood, meanwhile, put the knife in his pocket and walked to the back of the line.

“Does that man concern you?” I asked the people in the line behind me. They looked at me. I think they wanted me to shut up. The woman directly behind me muttered, “Yep.”

The casher finally returned my credit card and my stuff. I left the store. The other man who with the backpack still stood on the sidewalk. Maybe he was a lookout.

I turned back into the store, and I said to the cashier, “The man at the back of the line has a knife in his pocket. I thought you might like to know that.”

The cashier stood up then and moved toward the door. There were customers between her and the man. There was the narrow alley of scented candles and ceramic coasters. She said, “Return the knife or I’ll have to call the police.”

We walked briskly away from the man in the backpack by this time. Maybe he was the lookout. I didn’t see him anymore in any case, and then we were down the block and wondering if he should have called the police. Should we have called the police? Should I have done something? What just happened?

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