He was a classic working-poor racist ­ fat, greasy, and reeking of the stench of failure. Jagged patterns of dried sweat stained his T-shirt under his arms and around his neck, a reminder of the work he had put in before lunch.

Long ago he had been a Marine, thin and fit, and it was obvious that he was stuck deep in his glory days. His stories and language were peppered with macho attitude and military words ­ the floor was the "deck," the bathroom the "head." His verbs were punchy, active, and almost always accompanied by hand motions. I wondered if he knew he was pathetic, and suspected that, deep down, he did.

He chewed and swallowed. Sausage fingers ran down the sides of his mouth to brush away crumbs from the bread of his sandwich, and he sat back, stomach protruding, and held forth.

"Taco Town" was how he started. "The damned beaners in Taco Town." He'd been over to East Los Angeles to do some contractor work that morning and the experience, not surprisingly, had exactly met his expectations. "They've got no respect," he said. "No" ­ he stabbed the air with his finger ­ "respect."

What do you say to that? How do you react? If you're me, meekly.

"Respect?" I asked.

"No respect," he said again. "Some cholo greaser tagged up the staircase of the building." He offered a spray-paint pantomime. "Those people have no respect."

"But," I said, "just one guy did it, right?"

"Yeah," he said, shaking his head, "but they're all the same."

Ah. I put my sandwich down.

"Next time," he said, "I catch that little wetback, I'll put a cap in him. That" ­ finger-stab ­ "will teach the punk." He nodded sharply, and took an enormous bite of his sandwich, a small ribbon of roast beef hanging out of his mouth as he began to chew. "The Mexicans are as bad as the cans."

I leaned my elbow on the table, rested my forehead against the heal of my hand and looked at him sideways. "Cans?"

"Blacks." He laughed a short bark. "Eddie, he's a buddy of mine, we shoot at cans for fun."

My eyes widened. "For real? You shoot at people?"

He swallowed. "Naw. We shoot at cans" ­ he picked up and waved his Coke ­ "not cans. We just call 'em that."

I pushed the waste of my lunch into the trash and stood up. "Well, ah," I said. "Good. That's good." And I walked away.

I got to my car and sat slumped in the driver's seat for a few minutes. I felt sick.

I still feel sick.