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Top Shelf

It’s the middle of a hot afternoon in Southern California and I’m at CVS ogling cans of iced tea in the refrigerator section. I want the tea & strawberry lemonade Arnold Palmy but it’s on the top shelf well above my reach. There’s no one in sight, no employee or fellow patron from whom I can commandeer assistance. I am told these kinds of things happen to other people, but I remain unconvinced that there isn’t a larger conspiracy at work.

Don’t they know that’s my favorite flavor? I come here about once a week- I’m practically family! In my mind, I’ve already called a Senate hearing and replaced the unknown guilty parties of this top shelf conspiracy with the late Joseph McCarthy. Before I can finish freeing the nation from this tyranny, I remember I need plastic wrap. I had almost forgotten.

The day before I was at the grocery store and discovered every roll of plastic wrap was placed on the top shelf, well above my reach. Knowing when to pick my battles, I grab a fruit punch energy drink from the fridge and move on.

The plastic wrap at CVS is store-brand but easy to reach. Fair enough.

At the register, none of the self-serves are working. I wait while a young clerk wearing a employee polo one size too big rings up my items. One fruit punch energy drink. One roll of plastic wrap. Before I hand him my money, I notice there’s a display of one-dollar lighters and one of the lighters has turtles on it. I throw it on the counter with my other items because turtles are awesome and I need this lighter for… things. The young clerk looks at the turtle lighter I’ve selected with what I assume is barely restrained envy. He informs me he’s going to speak to the manager. When I ask him why, he mumbles and it sounds to me like “need to be eighteen”. This isn’t the first time I’ve had someone assume I was a minor, but suddenly my imagined top shelf conspiracy of inconvenience become all too real.

Being reminded that the world isn’t made for you stings.

The awkwardness compounds when two Hispanic families line up behind me.

Together, the young clerk, the Hispanic families and myself wait for the manager to rescue us from this situation. I mention the ethnicity because it’s the truth and to explain why I can’t be sure of their conversation, which quickly grows from a whisper to a Sunday lunch salon all in Espanol- a language I do not speak. However, the children’s furtive looks tell me enough, I’ve seen it before. They’re talking about me, about my disability, about how different I am from them.

I grab my things off the counter and motion for the families behind me to go next. I didn’t have time to deal with the staring, everyone stares, my battle is with the system not the people in line behind me.

Standing back, I smile and nod to the families. I can’t afford to make any more enemies right now so why not be friends? They return the friendly gesture reluctantly, but I chalk their hesitation down to mutual embarrassment over this young clerk and his ignorant assumptions. I want to tell the families that it’s okay, they don’t need to jump in to help me, I’m used to ignorance. I want to tell them my dream is to one day live in a world where that doesn’t happen to people like me or to anyone. But I refrain. If the powers-that-be-placing-drinks-on-top-shelves thought these people, if they thought these innocent families in line with me, mattered to me, untold yet surely dreadful and deliberate inconveniences will befall them. That’s how conspiracies work and I can’t take that risk. A silent martyr, I patiently wait for them to finish and leave before returning to do battle with the young clerk. As I lay the energy drink, plastic wrap, and lighter back down on the counter, finally ready to finish this business once and for all, the young clerk walks away.

He’s gone for a long five minutes. I mentally set fire to the building.

Fuming, I go over the litany of grievances in my head. First the drinks on the top shelf, then the leering stares from the families, and now I’m stuck here, at the register, all alone because this idiot employee thinks I’m too young to buy a lighter? Is this even America anymore? I begin to consider seceding from the Union and forming a new country somewhere, but the young clerk returns before I can decide on a flag design. More than ready to get the hell out of here, I ask him again if he can ring me up. Again, he says the manager is coming. In an “extremely rare” fit of cranky sarcasm, I inquire if the manager’s name is Godot. The clerk doesn’t get it, but to be honest, neither do I fully. I press him further.

Why can’t you sell me these things? I know why, but I want to hear him say it. I need his testimony to validate my rage. Why can’t you sell me a lighter? What’s wrong with me that you can’t sell me a lighter?! I state this loudly in my head, but what comes out is only ever a harsh whisper. It’s still one hell of a battering ram when I have your attention.

After the young clerk takes a moment to process what I’m saying, he apologizes and explains. Immediately my rage turns into something worse. Embarrassment.

The clerk is 17. You have to be eighteen to sell a lighter. He’s the one who isn’t old enough, not me, although I certainly feel like a child now.

I cool off in the parking lot, but only figuratively, it’s still hot out. One of the families from before passes by, I guess they have more shopping to do. The children stare at me again but this time they’re not looking at someone convinced he’s a hero singled out by fate or a genetic mutation. To them, I’m probably just another idiot standing next to his car holding an energy drink, plastic wrap, and a lighter.

Today, it’s as much of a win as I’m going to get.

Published inNon-fiction


  1. Thanks for sharing this. My daughter too is affected with Escobar, I often wonder about all these things and it is refreshing to hear an honest account of what it is like to have Escobar as an adult. Thanks for sharing your story, I look forward to hearing more.
    -Nikkee Fleming

  2. Barbara Smith Barbara Smith

    So sorry for your recent angst. Being that I am (in my adult years) neither too tall or too short I have not experienced this lately. I did once get my legs stuck in the kiddie airplane ride at Camden Park. I have helped many senior citizens in the grocery store with the top shelf items or maybe I should say peers now that I am of that age(sometimes I forget). So is the moral of the story that whatever we may think about the situations we are in it is totally something else or it could be.

  3. Nate May Nate May

    Great twist. Those moments when you realize that the world’s apathy toward you is actually to your advantage have been adding up for me. What it amounts to is permission to be myself. As an able-bodied white person who doesn’t otherwise stick out in most crowds, I can take that apathy for granted (if someone stares at me in a grocery store I usually assume it’s because they’re going over their grocery list in their head). For you, I imagine, that apathy feels like a gift sometimes.

  4. Michelle Michelle

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

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