The office kids are together. They take turns ordering. The short, fair one steps up to the cashier and tells her what he wants. I put him at mid- to late 20s, like my own sons.
The cashier asks him his name. He gives it. Vecchio, I think. The cashier says, "Ah! Italiano!" and starts using her Italian accent on him. One of Vecchio's friends says, "I never knew you were Italian. I always thought you were Jewish."
"Because I'm cheap," Vecchio replies, and laughs.
"Yeah," says the friend, who doesn't seem to get the joke but gives short heh anyway.
The room lurches, ever so slightly, like an el train when its brakes gasp. The air's gone thick. My brain, my stomach, even my skin sluice forward a thousandth of an inch and pause there for a thousandth of a second before falling back into place. I've heard this sort of thing before—this casual don't-mean-anything-by-it bigotry. Some part of me even expects it. ("Scratch a goy," said my sour Ashkenazi grandma, "there's a Jew-hater underneath.") But it always feels like a surprise. Did he really say that? Yes, he did.
After a while the air becomes breathable again. The wrinkle in the matrix has smoothed out. Vecchio is standing at the counter with his back to me. I focus on the friend. Speaking as though I were in an elocution class, I say, "Well, that was evil." He nods vaguely. "I'm serious," I say, insisting on his attention. He seems to think on it a moment and agrees, "Yeah, it was." Did Vecchio hear that? I don't know.
They move off. I buy my sandwich and take a table in the atrium. I have to take a few deep breaths before I can do what I came to do, but soon enough, I'm eating and reading.
The book is Ulysses. Like so many others, I've tried reading James Joyce's 1922 masterpiece before—a few times before, in fact—but never reached the end. I just started again. Today I'm reading the part of chapter two where Stephen Dedalus is being lectured by Mr. Deasy, the pompous old headmaster at the school where Stephen teaches. "Mark my words, Mr. Dedalus," Deasy says, "England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation's decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation's vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction. Old England is dying."
Dedalus attempts a rebuttal, suggesting that that a merchant "is one who buys cheap and sells dear, jew or gentile." But Deasy insists. The Jews, he says, "sinned against the light."
This is what I'm reading as I eat my excellent tuna salad sandwich in the atrium with the sun pouring in. A few lines further down, Joyce writes, "History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake."