On first appearance he just seemed like every other older guy in the neighborhood. Grey hair, a little paunch but strong features. He was after his late breakfast sandwich and arrived just before me at the corner Dunkin Donuts in the Gulf Station where the neighborhood Arab kids are almost always hanging out. The first sign of him being more sinister came when followed up his sandwich request with one word: “American”. I have never heard the word American used in the context of a Dunkin Donuts without it referring to a cheese selection, so I still did not make a serious effort to grasp the meaning of his statement. As he asked it again with a bit more force I realized that this was not a simple request for cheese—but an inquisition. Right before my very eyes, in the line at Dunkin Donuts—directed at the Olive Skinned girl now dutifully making his breakfast.
After his second smiling but more agitated— “American?!”, she responded back in the essential for survival detached
manner: “American.” She then carried on
trying to find the bacon. The manager of the store came over then to ask what I
was having. Emboldened by the presence of another presumed “foreigner” he again
initiates his inquisition: “American?!” in the direction of the manager. A seasoned veteran of selling late night
alcohol and cigarettes, ignored the blustering of a simple minded person, smiled,
and carried on. Obviously disappointed
that he might be loosing his audience, he called advanced his second line of
attack: “Deported!” My jaw nearly hit the floor. I turned to look at him—and
gave him what he so cravenly desired—someone watching. His follow up sentence was slightly more
complex: “You are all going to get deported”.
I knew I should say nothing, just let him stew in his own juices of bile
and xenophobia, but law. Eckart Tolle
and Wayne Dyer and every single minister at my church fled from me for that
brief moment and I could not hold back my match for the flame: “How rude?” At
this point, the showman has gained the center of the ring— he smiled a wide
grin and forcefully directed the word “American?!” at me. I responded with more words than he deserved
and concepts he clearly did not understand.
His only response: “See—American”.
It was as though the Cookie Monster and Bill O’Riley had conceived an
old man to host late night Fox programming and this was his screen test. I tried again to engage—to convert—to punish
him for his rudeness, arrogance, and insensitivity—and, most of all, for his desire
to share his worst qualities with this little piece of my neighborhood. New York
I asked him back—“Who was her first, sir?” I was trying to allude with subtlety and wit to the fact that this is a nation of immigrants—that we were all here after someone. I applied my years of reading and study and insight. And was rewarded with: “The Indians”—“No, before that?”—“The Spaniards?” was his response. Coffee safely in hand I realized that I had been had—sucked into the silliness like an unsuspecting guest on Punk’d or Candid Camera. At that moment, in that instant, I resigned. (If only I had done this so quickly in many past situations, relationships, and jobs.) I looked to a manager and employee who had no need of my help and shrugged. Their eyes seemed to say they had heard it before. That they required no defense attorney and that there was no point anyway. They knew, better than I, what needed to be done. So I took my coffee, my receipt and walked away. The old silly man beaming with an arrogant smile of righteousness that has existed at least back to the days of Pontus Pilate. A look carried forward by every other person of perceived power who persecuted a person of perceived weakness. I know that smile, I had seen it, and by engaging it—I fed it.
I walked out of the Gulf Station momentarily frustrated beyond all hope at the type of people who live in our world today—the simple minds and angry hearts of those who only seek to belittle and to disenfranchise—who look for every opportunity to push people down into whatever saucepan of hatred they choose to cook on the stove of their heart. I normally walk with my eyes clearly up, but like some seven year old dropped from the baseball team I plodded along the sidewalk, past the Presbyterian Church. Past the block that leads to the Mosque. In front of the Subway Sandwich shop, down from the Dominican Restaurant; across the street from the Hookah Parlor next to the sushi place, and towards the entrance to the R train. Along the way I nearly bumped into the nice young girl sweeping the sidewalk in front of the wine store. That great New York morning ritual of honor and respect for one’ community—when shopkeepers who know full well that their efforts are futile, none-the-less chip in as a communal effort to make things just a little cleaner and nicer for the neighborhood. For as long as there have been shops, I think these people have been waging this effort.
I smiled to see and remember that she is Korean. And I giggled at this short little truth, shown on a block and half of
New York City Street—that
the bigots and the tyrants—no matter how angry their words make us—can always
be and will always be defeated by the smallest actions of the one. Not by op-ed pages in the Times; or by
task-forces on how to solve community problems—but by one single person doing
the one thing they can do to make things better. Whether it is to make the sidewalk a little
cleaner in front of a row of family owned stores, or show, by their actions,
that Faith and Hope and Truth will always win out, especially over an ignorant,
frightened, and sad man in a coffee shop.
And all those just like him.