Down the street from where I live there is a coffee shop. It is a chain, but the best kind of chain. Behind it, there is a small cluster of large pine trees. Often I stand under the lush canopy they provide and sip a freshly purchased coffee, maybe even smoke a cigar.
They say it is healthy to merely look at trees, so during a coffee break I like to get an eyeful.
I look somewhat odd, and not just when I am standing under a tree with a contented grin on my face; moreso in general. This is not so much what you would call a beard and long hair as it is what happens if you never shave or visit the barber. Comfort is important. If it is cool out, the jacket hood is up; if there is sunlight, sunglasses.
I would not mention any of this minutiae, but for one reason.
Across the street from the cluster of trees, right about where my disinterested gaze lingers while I enjoy my faux-nature experience, there is a pizza place. Another chain.
All day and night, delivery drivers are arriving and leaving on the street beside the store. Many, as they walk from their car to the side door, turn to stare at me. Maybe glare would be a better word.
I have tried smiling, head nodding, raising my hand and tipping an invisible cap bill, a sort of limp-wristed caricature of a military salute, and so on. Nothing has been able to crack their impenetrable facade of stone-faced disapproval.
I don’t necessarily blame them. I can imagine the teenage pizza store employees peering out the window at a shadowy figure partially obscured by tree branches, a figure appearing to perhaps be watching them. Is “casing the joint“ too strong here?
Yesterday, after multiple months, a particularly outgoing and adventurous employee finally took the novel step of approaching me and striking up a conversation.
I guess “striking up a conversation” would not quite be the phrase, at least not at first. The initial interaction was something like, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
But once I extrapolated on my neighborhood credentials and briefly proselytized the health benefits of tree ogling, we did, in fact, speak amicably for upwards of half an hour.
The most interesting part of the conversation was when the employee revealed that the reason they had ventured out to speak with me in the first place was that a different employee had announced they were calling the cops “on that guy standing out there.” Why? “Just look at him!”
Managing to wade through the haze of cultural stipulation, at least one employee ascertained it would be best to actually speak with the person before condemning them to the authorities.
When this employee walked back into the store, I could hear them loudly announce, as the door closed slowly behind them, “He’s not a weirdo, he’s just some guy taking a coffee break.“
False alarm everyone. Dial it back to code orange. Everybody stay sharp.
This relatively innocuous experience is stuck firmly at the front of my mind, particularly because of multiple ongoing storylines this week.
On Friday, the Los Angeles Times released an investigation showing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has wrongfully arrested and detained — sometimes for years at a time — almost 1,500 U.S. citizens since 2012. A different report detailing “How ICE Is Gaining a Scary Amount of Data Through Police Data-Mining” was also released earlier in the week. This, on top of stories of ICE agents illegally detaining and deporting people in New York City, a supposed sanctuary city. In Chicago, activists took to the streets to protest “people being terrorized for going to work.”
Elsewhere, Trump’s “Muslim Ban” — the latest incarnation being enforced in full since December — continued to make its way through the Supreme Court as Vox pondered “How Trump’s travel ban became normal.”
The natural careening out of control in a culture of profiling.
I am a white male. I know very little about this.
That being said, I used to be a clean-shaven, clean-cut white male and I can tell you that public reaction and interaction was much different then than it is now.
Now is something of a social experiment, a kind of long-term, surface-level “Black Like Me.”
When merely my smiling presence is enough to make people want to call the police, it is not something I experience on a personal level. Rather, it makes me think of all the people who constantly endure little things like this and, obviously, much worse, because of something they can’t go home and change with a pair of scissors, a straight razor, and 15 minutes.