“He thinks you did it on purpose.”

“That’s crazy. Like I’d purposely bump him so he spills coffee on his shirt.”

Ramon laughed and lit another cigarette. He smoked so much, sometimes there was one going in the ashtray at the same time he reached for a new one. He needed to wear his twenty cigarettes strung on a necklace. It would save time. I told him this but he waved me away.

“Well, so did you?” He laughed a little like he was kind of hoping I had.

“Not exactly. It was pretty much an accident.”

He looked at me sideways and I wondered if there would be some kind of formal complaint. Would the bumped guy really accuse me of ruining his shirt? It seemed unlikely. Who would imagine that someone like me, a respected program evaluator, would besmirch the shirt of a youth program director?

It had been a long, steamy day in the ratty second floor conference room of Ramon’s agency, the one with the giant artificial Christmas tree in the corner, decorated each month with a new ‘theme.’ It was July so there were little American flags everywhere, streamers and a silver pinwheel at the top which was still all the time, there being no air moving except Ramon’s steady smoky exhaling. I got the sentiment of the tree, wanting to be more inclusive about holidays, but the gist of it was no one wanted to wrestle the tree back in the box. So it stood there while we queried a dozen program directors about how well their programs were running. One after the other all day long

Shirt Man was one of the last appointments. He sat at the end of the long conference table, squeezed in between the table, the Christmas tree and a stack of spare chairs. From the beginning, we clashed.

He raved about his program. I asked questions about its outcomes. He told us about fantastic gains in learning for the kids in his program. I asked for more data. We haggled about numbers, about what was sufficient evidence. He held firm as if he’d decided he’d answered all the questions he needed to. He looked to Ramon like guys do when they’re tired of the questions, an inside look on his face read ‘can you make her stop?’ I watched their little man code, Shirt Man sending signals while Ramon lit another cigarette. I raised one eyebrow, a trademark gesture notorious among my kids. But my evil eye was meaningless since no one was looking at me. I was no longer part of the conversation.

I’m not saying that I bumped him on purpose. It was tight making my way to the ladies room, squeezing between that tree and his chair, and I had no idea that he would be bringing his cup of coffee to his lips at that very moment when I had to give his chair just a bit of a nudge to make my way through.

Later that afternoon, I went to a fancy men’s store on the way home to inquire about dress shirts. I realized that I didn’t know his size and it seemed like a lot to replace his entire shirt because of an ill-timed bump that anybody could have made by mistake, huge overcompensation like awarding damages and pain and suffering for something Tide could resolve (although I wasn’t sure that would be true).  So I bought him coffee instead. Fancy coffee from a place that gets beans from all over, you know, places like Nicaragua and Guatemala

And a mug. I also bought him a mug. A nice mug, but not too nice.

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The Daily Post: Apology