pre-coffee conversation


He was my first customer this morning at the bookstore. I knew he wasn’t there for books because he marched right up to the counter to peruse the stuff we keep at the register. He picked something up and scowled at it.

“What’s this?”

“A granola bar. Wrapped in Shakespearian insults, to aid the digestion.”

“Oh. Ha ha.” He squinted harder. “Well at least it’s kosher. At least it’s not that Muslim thing.” I returned my eyes to the screen. I could tell this wasn’t going to be nice. “What’s the word? That Muslim word that means something like kosher?”

“Um….” The market near my house is called The Halal Market.  They have really good lamb. “Halal?”

“Yeah, that’s it. At least it’s not halal.”

“Halal is from the word hallelujah.” I was hoping to steer the conversation somewhere else. “I mean, I think the words come from the same place. I love that word: hallelujah. It’s so joyful.”

“Is that so? Well, I won’t buy it if it’s halal. That word has no real meaning.” The bookstore is full of books but he was standing right in front of me and I couldn’t walk away. “You know it’s meaningless, don’t you? You know the term kosher has been around forever, that it obeys a strict standard. It’s thoroughly regulated. But anything can be halal. Halal means nothing at all.”

“I don’t really know about either process. You know, it’s a little early in the morning.” I tried to smile. “I haven’t had my coffee yet. Have you had your coffee?”

“You don’t believe me? You think halal means something?”

“I think it means something like kosher, to a Muslim person.”

“Oh, no, no, it’s not kosher at all. Kosher means clean. They follow strict rules and procedures. The word halal has only been around for about ten years. Halal is meaningless.”

“The word is probably a lot older than that. Maybe we’ve only just started learning about it.”

He was leaning closer, his head looming over the computer screen. He held the granola bar up. “No, it means nothing. If it’s not kosher, it’s probably dirty.”

He had me trapped. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “The truth is, that kosher granola bar has been sitting on this counter for at least a year. It’s probably beyond stale by now. Look–the package is sort of dusty. I wouldn’t buy it if I were you.”

“Well, I can see where you stand.” He put the granola bar down, shook his head, and stalked out.




From Wikipedia: In the Hebrew Bible hallelujah is actually a two-word phrase, not one word. The first part, hallelu, is the second-person imperative masculine plural form of the Hebrew verb hallal.[1] However, “hallelujah” means more than simply “praise Yah”, as the word hallel in Hebrew means a joyous praise in song, to boast in God. Hallel could also refer to someone who acts madly or foolishly.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. Mentally hissing at this man. I also believe ‘Halal’ and its opposite ‘Haram’ appear in the Qu’ran – so it’s centuries old. The ‘halal’ sign is pretty common over here, Kosher far, far less so. Down to patterns of immigration I suppose. While racist and xenophobic chat is rare here – and probably where you are too? – I’ve recently been dealing with it and it’s hurting my head and soul.

    • Helen! We are seeing more and more halal markets and signs in my neighborhood, which was mostly Indian and Mexican before. Yes, it this talk very rare, probably why it struck me so hard. He was a regular nice-looking man and then he opened his mouth and my little universe shook. xoox

  2. People are jerks. Especially the pigheaded ones. The ones who truly believe you aren’t listening to them–because if you were listening to them you would agree with them, of course.

  3. There isn’t much else you could have done. Times like that I remind myself 1) You can’t argue with a crazy person; and 2) Suffer fools gladly. I generally smile and say things like “How about them (insert name of local sports team here)?” That often does the trick.

    • Arg. I wish I knew something about sports so I could go there. I’m making a mental list of things to say if something like this happens again, especially before I’ve had my coffee.

  4. Greetings – Haraam is an interesting concept – we live in such a strange , morally loose society now – that concepts of the – morally unacceptable – or forbidden – as in evil- seem to have disappeared . Our politics are adding to that … dishonesty and deceit permeate our wars and our policies , our health care , and treatment of each other … Nothing is – haraam – in our western society it seems .

    • I had to look that up: “Ḥarām (Arabic: حَرَام‎ ḥarām) is an Arabic term meaning sinful. In Islamic Jurisprudence, haram is used to refer to any act that is forbidden by God.” I’m not sure if his unpleasantness was evil, but was certainly no fun for me. If I had agreed with him, we could have been friendly. It is sad that we require others to agree instead of just reveling in the difference (or similarity).

  5. Yikes. Surrounded by knowledge and information, ignorance stubbornly proclaims itself. Sigh.I hope the rest of the day went better.

  6. What a dick!
    I looked it up as I am sure you did, and Halal is a Muslim word meaning lawful. In reference to food it means they are allowed to eat it. He should not be allowed to come back to your store…

  7. What a fucking prick. I think you kept it together beautifully, especially given your state of pre-caffeination.

    • Averil! I had your book at the doctor’s office the other day. I was reading it and blushing, blushing, wondering if any of the other waiting people could see the sexy thoughts in my mind, telling myself that they’d never, ever know just from looking at the cover.

  8. I was invited to engage in similarly confounding conversations when I worked at the reference desk of a busy public library. Wishing for an ejector button to fling me far away I instead honed what little diplomacy I could muster in order to be of service whatever that means.

  9. Wow. Well handled, Anna.
    It makes me think of this article, and all the implications therein:

    • Oh my god, Karen, that’s it EXACTLY!!!
      Aha! The pieces fall into place! I get it now!

      • We need to affirm everyone’s self-worth no matter what kind of behavior or what crazy things they are saying, and maybe they can respond to reason. It maybe worth a try, but how hard is that to do on a regular basis. Because there are so many people who will say and do things that are purely reactions to fear and alienation.

  10. oh the joys of being behind a counter – at least there was a partial barrier. Just followed Karen’s link above goes a long way to explaining what has just happened in Australian politics!

  11. Gotta love people who don’t let pesky facts get in the way of their ignorance. Well handled, Anna.

  12. i like being completely wacko back to such freaks, really just to amuse myself. like being hellbent on something ridiculous, “ummm, i’m 100 percent positive that kosher means water resistant. you know, like food that won’t retain water.” the more ridiculous you sound the better and the more angry they get which just makes it all the more amusing.

    (while racism is one of the ugliest traits a person can display, i’m also always annoyed at people who insist on being right.)

    • I wish you were there, Josey. I actually wished I could crawl into my computer screen to get away. Yours is such a healthier response– and more fun, too!

      • Look what I just found! seriously, I was laying on the couch leafing through this month’s Oprah when I came across this on the bottom of page 34 and had to get up and post here: ultracrepidarianism – giving opinions on subjects you know nothing about. how perfect is that?? now you can say, “oh my god, you are such an ultracrepidarist!” with a big cheesy grin and flattering tone, like you’re telling them they’re a genius. when they say, “a what?” just say, “you know, someone who knows a lot about stuff.”

        i’m totally taking advantage of this word sometime during the next week. i don’t know how, but it’s getting used.

        • Fabulous word! My family has been doing this for years. We have a family joke about the time my aunt wanted to “win” a discussion and so she fabricated some key data to back herself up. To seal the deal, she started with “According to the New York Times…”. Now, whenever anyone wants to assert some sketchy opinion, we say we saw it in the NYT. xoox

  13. One can only imagine how much previously untainted food has been “modified” for that man as a result of his behaviour.
    Well done, Anna. The mirror you showed him will have helped him no end to digest his own form of poison. The right circumstance brings out the Shakespeare in all of us.

  14. Todd

    What a putz. He probably chose you to accost because he knew you were stuck and had to listen. It’s kind of abusive behavior. I get it sometimes too in sales… like the time some disgusting porn producer made me listen to the legal problems entailed in his “work”, yuk! I went home and took a shower. My wife, who also works retail, deals with it a lot. She’s nice until she can’t take it anymore then tells them to buy something or leave. You did a good job “handling” him but what would like to have said? I’m with Josey, I like to mess with people like that when I can. Maybe something like… “Yeah man, Kosher is the bomb. All my bud is Kosher. I get it from a funky Rabbi dude who calls it Heeb Weed”. I fuck’n LOVE IT!

    • I’m going to call you and Josey next time anything like this happens. You guys can give me pointers.
      Hey, waitaminute– so you wife is working now Todd? When did that happen?!

      • Todd

        I meant not full time. She went to just weekends four+ years ago when Sir Bratrick was showing his presence. I’d be happy to answer the dickhead smackdown hotline, but it might get you fired….

  15. I agree that he was odd and harsh and weird. But who knows? Maybe he was a Jew who had been bullied by Muslim people? I am not taking his side, but everyone is always ready to jump to stand up for Muslim people b/c it is pc to do so. But how many people go out of their way to stand up for a wronged Jew? It seems that if you are a Christian or a Jew nowadays, that anything goes. All is fair. If a Muslim is wronged, down with everyone.Stop the presses.
    Again, I am not condoning the crazy man’s behavior, but I wonder what happened to make him have such strong feelings like that? Maybe he was off of his meds or is just a bigot. The situation was uncomfortable I am sure and I understand why you reacted the way that you did. I would have gotten sarcastic as well. But negative talk about Jews and Christians happens all of the time now in the media, on tv shows, in books, online and it has somehow become the norm.No one seems to jump to the defense of these groups. It is somehow accepted and I get sick of it. I despise bigotry and narrow-minded behavior no matter who it is about.
    I think that anytime people hear it about a race, religion, etc. that we should stand up against it, even if we do not fundamentally agree with it/them or relate to it/them. Good post as always. You lead an interesting life.

    • I’m interested in seeing what people reveal in the small details and gestures and words they use. I’m not interested in broad, unsubstantiated political or religious arguments and stale ideas, but I am utterly fascinated in seeing people reveal themselves through their words, in the moment. I know that certain topics trigger all kinds of thoughtless responses. I did not speak negatively about him (and by the way, there is no evidence he was Jewish), I merely repeated a very real conversation I had at work that day, which I perceived to be a very strong, telling bit of dialogue.

      Telling about both him and me. I re-read the exchange– I don’t see my sarcasm, but I do see defensiveness. I am defended (and the irony with the stale granola was probably a bit dramatic). It’s true that at the core, I will always be the little girl who had to defend herself from loud, crazy, insistent, opinionated people who walked into my personal space and demanded agreement. What I’m taking away from this exchange is that I don’t have to protect myself– I’m not vulnerable anymore– like the way Josey and Todd can just react with humor and self-assurance, I can just say what I need to say. I’m not a child and if anyone walks into my space trying to make me kowtow to their worldview, I don’t have to feel threatened. There will always be people spouting empty ideas. How I react is a choice.

      • I don’t blame you I would have probably done the same thing but I wouldn’t been as nice as you. My comment was not mean to offend you, to show a different side of things. I did not mean sarcasm is a bad thing I used it often. If you consider it being defensive that is fine. Are you still working retail on how to deal with odd and overly insistent people. To each his own I always say. But I do believe it tolerance should be universal. My comments about other religions were directed towards you, more so the other comments and are overly PC climate when it comes to certain groups of people.

  16. Well, I think you handled that incredibly smoothly, especially pre-coffee! Neither my mouth nor my brain would have functioned under those conditions.

  17. How patient of you to talk to him so long….when I worked in a bookstore, I noticed that there were regulars who never bought a book, but came in to talk. Sometimes I found myself impatient, but then, in a better frame of mind, or when I wasn’t concentrating on a book or a computer screen, I thought about how we all want to be listened to–a bookstore seems a good a place as any. To discourage someone like this. maybe baklavas or spareribs.

  18. bookshops are known for their rich diversity of freaks and oddballs…according to your wikipedia link, it looks like halal derives from a hebrew word which is not that surprising. Christianity and Islam both grew out of Judaism and many customs and words are shared between them 🙂

  19. I think you got a great end to the conversation! Because there are people that really just need someone to talk to. Even that early in the morning…

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