Dear Prudence

Skinheads Need to Shop, Too

I was reluctant to serve a neo-Nazi customer. Was that bad of me?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I work in retail. One day I came around a corner and saw a customer facing away from me. A co-worker was approaching him from the other side. Usually I would go up myself and see if I could be of assistance; instead I backed away quietly. Why? The customer had a swastika tattoo on the back of his shaved head. I could hear him speaking with my colleague, and she found him what he needed. (And I hope she turned and walked away from him and thus never saw the back of his head.) I judged him and I discriminated against him based on his appearance. Did I do something wrong?

—Not That Tat

Dear Tat,
I have to agree with you that backing away from the swastika is a good general principle. The needs of this neo-Nazi were sufficiently met by your colleague—and please don’t tell me you work at a gun store—so no refusal of service even occurred. If you’d told the customer that the swastika tattoo makes a bad impression on you and therefore you won’t wait on him, it would have been unlikely to make him realize his love for all mankind. You’re not obligated to serve a customer who is, for example, making sexual remarks to you. But refusing to serve people at a retail operation open to the public because you dislike their beliefs is bad for business and opens you to potential legal complaints. You and your colleagues can discuss what to do when there are customers bearing symbols that would make it hard for some of you to bear providing service. I assume this comes up infrequently, so maybe some among you would volunteer to step up and deal with such customers. There is no symbol more repugnant than the swastika, but if someone else comes in displaying one, I think the best course is to help him swiftly and get him out of your place of business as soon as possible.


Dear Prudence,
I am a divorced man in my 50s, and two weeks ago I happened by chance to reconnect with a woman with whom I had a relationship for a couple of years in the mid-’80s. I was very happy with her, but I was in my 20s and not able to provide her the kind of serious relationship she wanted or deserved. I was a jerk, and I was lucky that she stayed with me as long as she did. Now, 30 years later, she is a widow, and we are together again, this time older and more mature. I could easily fall in love with her again, except for one thing. She just sent me a to-do list that includes about 10 things about my lifestyle that she wants me to change. There’s nothing on the list I cannot comply with, such as not drinking soda and only eating organic fruits and vegetables. But the existence of the list bothers me! Am I wrong?


Dear Troubled,
This reminds me of another general principle: Back away from the new (or rediscovered) love who presents you with a list of all the things you have to change. You’ve been seeing this old flame for two weeks, and she’s effectively emptied a fire extinguisher on you. Sure, her demands are for your own good, but if this is her opening gambit, you might as well put on a muzzle, hand her the leash, and wait for her to tell you when you’re allowed to pee. Maybe you were a jerk all those years ago. But she sounds like one now. You reconnected with her two weeks ago. Considering how things have gone so far, I think it’s time to wish her good luck finding a more acceptable partner.


Dear Prudence,
Our son was invited to stay over at a friend’s house to celebrate his friend’s 16th birthday. There were five boys there who have been friends since kindergarten, and all the families are close. The boy whose party it was lost his mother to cancer about two years ago and now lives several hours away with his father, stepmother, and college-age sister. The stepmother is trying, but she’s young and inexperienced. When my husband and I arrived the next afternoon to pick up our son, we were pulled aside by the friend’s father to let us know that the boys had gotten into a bottle of liquor and drank all of it. The father was surprised, concerned, embarrassed, and apologetic, and we were sympathetic and understanding. We’ve all done these types of things, and we chalked it up to a rite of passage. The stepmother asked me to let her know if I found out any new information when I spoke with our son, and I said I would. My husband and my son talked, and it turns out the 22-year-old boyfriend of the birthday boy’s sister bought the liquor for the party. Our son also added that he suspects his friend drinks pretty regularly. My husband promised our son that their conversation would remain private. Our son is a pretty straight arrow, but I’m concerned about his friend. We now know that there is a young adult on the scene who is supplying a teenager we care deeply about with liquor. My question is this: Should I let the stepmother know that the daughter’s boyfriend is not trustworthy? Or should I do as my husband requests and let it go and let the family sort it out on their own without any further input from us?

—Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned,
In the course of two years this boy has lost his mother, gained a young stepmother, and left the town where he grew up. It’s easy to understand why he wants to drink. Of course, it’s concerning if a teenage boy is turning to the bottle to deal with his pain. But your husband made a promise to your son about confidentiality, and that should guide your actions here. Sure, if this boy were in obvious danger, you’d have to explain to your son that safety trumps confidentiality, but that doesn’t sound like the case. The sister’s boyfriend should not have bought the kids a bottle, but there’s a long tradition of newly legal drinkers providing the booze to teenagers. It must have been quite a birthday party! These hung-over goofballs got caught, and it’s good that you and your husband had the proper perspective on this. I think you should tell your son you appreciate getting the whole story, and that you’re going to keep this to yourselves. But even though the birthday boy has moved away, I hope your entire family can stay in touch with him. He needs emotional anchors and a connection to the life that’s now gone. Maybe you can occasionally offer to pick him up for a (booze-free) weekend with your son and the rest of the gang at your place. It would be good if you and your husband, who have known this boy all his life, could be a continuing warm presence in it—and it wouldn’t hurt to have your eyeballs on him in case you observe any warning signs that would need passing on to his father.


Dear Prudence,
I have been wanting to reach out to my older sister, who I have not communicated with for more than 30 years, but I don’t know how. I don’t want or expect a sappy Hallmark thing. I only want to catch up with her before it’s too late to do so. (I’m in my 50s, and she’s in her 60s.) Our mother passed away in 1981, and I came out as gay in 1982. Her husband at the time detested me for being gay and declared that I was not to contact them again. But after 30-plus years I would like to see if she is willing to correspond with me. The new marriage law is helping me not feel so embarrassed or ashamed—maybe that is why I am now willing to give it a shot.

—Needs a Family

Dear Needs,
There are still plenty of bigots in the world, but thanks to the astounding recent pace of social progress, fewer young people who come out as gay will suffer the kind of estrangement and humiliation you did. I hope that over the years you eventually saw that the embarrassment and shame rightly belonged to your brother-in-law, and sadly your sister for going along with him. You indicate that this husband is no longer in the picture, but it says something that his departure did not prompt a rapprochement from her. Maybe she still harbors ugly views. Or maybe she feels so much damage was done that she hasn’t been brave enough to risk being the one to reach out. I think it’s fine for you to do so, as long as you have zero expectations. Get her address (physical or email) and send a letter. You can keep it light—“Hey sis, long time no see!”—and say that you’ve been thinking about her a lot lately and wanted to reach out and offer to get together. If she responds positively, you can take it step by step. But if she responds badly, or with silence, then you’ll know she hasn’t changed, and you can feel at peace about not having her in your life.


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