Something happened just a few minutes ago, and I felt so strongly about it that I just had to talk about it.
I stopped on my way home from work at a party store that is located less than a mile from my house. It’s one of those stores that I’m so familiar with that I know exactly where I need to go to get what I want inside, so I walked in and grabbed what I needed. The items I purchased were right at the cash register, and there was a woman buying a carton (plus a pack) of Misty cigarettes already occupying the cashier’s time.
“No! No, I don’t get charged for this!” she insisted.
Her words caught my attention, as I typically turn mentally idle while I wait, only turning back on when it’s my turn to pay.
I’m not quite sure what she was talking about, but the cashier caught my gaze: He was tall, slightly grown-out shorter hair, which was a medium reddish brown, and it contrasted with his vaguely olive skin. For some reason, though, what really caught my attention was the wooden rosary he wore around his neck. My first thought was ‘that’s not a necklace,’ as it usually is when I see somebody wearing a rosary like that, but I packed my nit-pickiness away and continued to observe this man. As he spoke to the woman in a gentle and nervous way, I could hear an accent in his voice. The accent sounded almost exactly the same as the rest of the people who work at the store.
I had always wondered where the people who own the store are from; I could never figure it out. My best guess was Albania, but I very rarely put any weight on guesses. All I was aware of was that I enjoyed their accents and how they spoke to me. To them, I’m ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey’ or some other term of endearment that makes me smile.
Once the woman vacated her spot at the register, the man softly, gently sang “Thank you,” with a shy smile after her, looking sheepish.
Then, he looked at me, and smiled wider.
“Hello,” he said, warmly.
“Hi,” I said, cheerfully, giving him a friendly grin. “I just need these, please.”
“Umm, how much are those?” he asked, more to himself than anybody else. “Oh. $6.99, so…” He began to type the numbers into the register, and I felt my curiosity take over.
“Your accent is so pretty. Where are you from?”
It was kind of loud in the store, so he probably didn’t hear me.
“Your accent is so pretty. Where are you from?” I repeated, louder and clearer, though sadly, lacking the amount of emotion from the first time I asked.
The man’s eyes went wide, and I saw a flash of terror for a fraction of a second before they dropped away from mine.
“Oh-uh…” he stuttered nervously. After a bit of hesitation, he finally came up with an answer. “The Middle East.”
“Where in the Middle East?” I pried.
Looking extremely uncomfortable and defeated, he offered me an unhappy smile and nodded his head.
“Oh. Ok,” I said, casually.
But that’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to say something like this:
You poor soul. You look like you’ve been emotionally battered and abused just because of where you come from…something you have absolutely no control over…and you’re so afraid that people who don’t know a thing about you will instantly hate you. Well, not this time; not me. I don’t hate you. As a matter of fact, I think you’re the sweetest, shyest, most endearing person I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with all day, and if I ever saw somebody go off on you for being Iraqi, I would hit them over the fucking head with a bottle. YOU are not personally responsible for our respective nations’ issues. The people in this country can be very ignorant and rude and mean-hearted, and…look at you! You were so scared to tell me where you were from, but it didn’t even occur to you to lie about it. Do you realize how much character you possess? You seem wonderful. So, please, don’t be scared of me. I don’t hate you…not even a little bit.
I just gave him a big, genuine smile.
“It really is a pretty accent.”
As soon as I said the words, a wave of relief seemed to wash over his face, and his strained grin relaxed into authenticity.
We said our good-byes, and as I walked away, I felt a heaviness in my heart. I mean, are we really that far gone, as a society? Are Americans really that prejudice, that vapid and self-interested that they don’t care about other people or think things through before they react? Surely, his fear was based in some sort of reality, whether it was born from his own or by-proxy, but are people seriously such assholes?
As I approached the door, I saw a girl wearing shorts and holding a smart phone who was about to enter the store. With the way she maneuvered her body, though, it was going to be awkward to hold the door open for her, so I completely exited the store, let out a short laugh at the silliness of the situation, and held it open for her.
To my shock and amazement, she walked through, not looking at me, or saying a word of acknowledgement, as if it were expected of me to hold the door open for her, like I were a doorman. Didn’t even reach out to help hold the door.
“YOU’RE WELCOME!” I shouted at her unresponsive form, as I let the door go.
And yes, she DID hear me, but I severely doubt she cared.
Yup. They certainly ARE such assholes.
Can we change assholes? Nope. We can’t.
What can we do, then?
NOT be assholes.
We can call assholes out on their antics.
We can find other non-assholes and show them that we exist.
We can heal each other a tiny bit each and every day.
We can stand up for each other and our own values.
And we can place hate only where hate is due.