My motive was to not look lost. I fingered the plastic washer in my pocket as I turned down “hardware alley,” a street lined almost exclusively with hardware stores. Lest you question the logic of this arrangement, note that most of the stores specialize in certain areas such as light fixtures, mirrors, tile, etc. And often, they don’t overlap merchandise. For example, only one or two stores carry little items like screws, nails, and washers.
Which was exactly my problem. I had yet to ascertain which stores I needed to visit and I felt out of place tromping from store to store on a street operated and patronized mostly by men. My task was to find metal washers to replace the plastic ones that had come with our new toilet seat. Ideally, the metal would grip the porcelain and keep the seat from sliding around.
When I whipped out my plastic washer for the first store owner, he pointed to the store next door. The store next door did indeed have washers.
“What do you want them for?” the owner asked.
I was embarrassed to admit that I was trying to fix a toilet seat. After all, this man was from a culture where Western toilets were the exception rather than the norm. So I offered a blank smile and pretended not to understand his question. Sometimes being a foreigner is helpful. Then again, being a foreigner was what got me into the situation in the first place.
The man eventually dug out two metal washers. They were small, but they were the only size he had. He suggested I keep looking for bigger ones and if I couldn’t find any, to try out the ones he had given me. When I pulled out my wallet, he said, “No problem” and ushered me out of his store.
I stopped at a third store where the man shook his head and told me to try another store.
“Where?” I realized how ridiculous the question was as I asked it. My directional comprehension still had much room for improvement. I prepared to nod and smile despite the fact that I wouldn’t understand.
And I didn’t understand everything, but I understood that the store he recommended was somewhere in relation to a nearby bank. So I meandered around, trying to look purposeful rather than lost.
Eventually, I made an educated guess and entered a store that was overcome with men. (One of my friends refers to such places as “the valley of the shadow of men.”)
I sidled up to the counter. “Do you have something like this…” I plunked the metal washer from the second store owner on the counter. “But bigger. Like this one…” Another plunk as I set the larger plastic washer beside the tiny metal one. “But not plastic.”
The owner didn’t give me any smart remarks or pick-up lines. He didn’t even give me a strange look. He just asked how many I wanted and fetched me precisely what I was looking for.
I fought the urge to cast a smug look around to see if anyone was astonished by my smooth purchase on hardware alley.