How to Keep Cool When Confronting Bigots

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“I’m about to get out my old pistol, dust it off, the way things goin’ ’round here.”

My eyes darted up at the fellow across from me in the hospital waiting room. The guy was decked out in denim, a worn-in baseball cap, scuffed boots on his feet. He was mustached—not in the trendy sense.

The man sitting one seat down bobbed his head with enthusiasm. He wore a thick hoodie and rugged jeans.

“Oh yeah, I’m gonna be ready . . . when they come.”

The man with the mustache nodded with vigor.

“There’s gonna be a shitstorm. Surprised it hasn’t hit yet.”

His hands rested across his belly. I imagined from daily beers and a hearty appetite that had been indulged for a couple of decades. These guys were around the same age, seeming retirees.

They were the kind of men who felt at ease talking loudly in a small waiting room.

I glanced up at the monitor for outpatient surgery.  Patient 639, my husband, was in the “procedure started” phase. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. I couldn’t relax.

I hated to think of my best darling anaesthetized on a gurney, getting biopsied. We had both been in a spiral of worry for the last few weeks.

What were they going to find?

I tried to keep calm. Keep my mind far away from worst-case scenarios.

We scheduled the procedure in a suburb north of Pittsburgh because it seemed easier than dealing with the university hospital in the heart of the city. Driving out of town that morning, we had scant traffic. We parked in the hospital’s open lot. No garage. No long walk in the cold. No need to validate our parking ticket. There was no parking ticket.

But I noticed the difference as soon as we got settled. It was like a time warp, style-wise. One of the receptionists wore a bedazzled sweatshirt with an owl applique. Everyone was white. As am I. But my best darling is not. He is a tall black man.

However, you should know that he’s not always been seen as just black. He’s been mistaken for Egyptian, Samoan, East Indian and Muslim. His look is shorthand for “terrorist” in some types of company.

I took his hand. He was nervous about the procedure and pretending not to be.

“Come and get me,” my husband threw his arms out like Christ or somebody. He said it loudly as the nurse appeared. She laughed and that put me at ease.

“Take care of him,” I told her and I kissed him.

I watched my husband disappear through the swinging doors. I had been told to consult the monitor regarding his status.

I pulled out my phone and tried to calm down.

The men beside me took up so much space with their voices that it was hard to settle into my own thoughts. I needed to go through the details of biopsy. Reassure myself. Put up a wall against dark thoughts. I needed to strangle fear and get rational.

The man with the mustache was complaining.

“Took me 10 years to get my disability. All that service. Nothing. But they finally gave it.”

The guy with the belly shook his head.

“Thank you for serving.”

“Yep. Now they got Mary,” he tossed his head toward the double doors, “they’re testing another lump they found in there n’ at.”

“Yeah?” said Belly, “My son tore his rotator cuff. Gonna be outta work for awhile. Him and Jenny and the kids staying with us now.”

I don’t want to hear all this.

But I guessed it was their way of coping. There was just one seat between me and Belly, but it might as well have been a gorge. I wasn’t going to chit-chat with these two. Which was awkward because I was an arm’s length. Privy to their every word.

What could I possibly say?

“My husband’s father died of colon cancer. Now he’s got the first signs. At 46. Our youngest child is 3. Worse: I cannot conceive of enduring this planet without this man at my side. The masses they found, they have to be benign today. They have to. Do you understand me? They HAVE TO.”

Yeah. I wouldn’t be talking to these guys.

Then Mustache said something especially crazy: “These Muslims, with the suicide vests, they’re coming over here next.”

Here we were. Fellow humans, each with a loved one behind double doors in a hospital. No connection.

I glanced around the room looking for an open chair far from this discussion.

“They let them build–what was it? One ‘a them mosques down by the 9/11 site,” said Belly.

I shifted in my seat.

I could tell these guys had an inkling of what I thought of them and I didn’t care. I remembered. My husband was just with me. Our fingers entwined. Our foreheads touching.

They must have seen him as their dark-skinned menace.

“In France,” Mustache said, “cops been raiding all them mosques, tearing them down.”

“We can’t let them in here. We gotta secure the borders.”

I thought of my husband. My heart began to race.

He was unconscious. Being cut into.

What could I say to these two? And why should I have to say anything? What if I used their own language?

How about: “The vast majority of Muslims ain’t bad people at all. And mosques have nothing to do with terrorism. Nothing.”

Would that get through?

“And that monkey we got in office,” said Mustache, “he just lets them all in here.”

“He ain’t gonna last much longer.”

“I’m surprised they haven’t killed him yet.”

“Bout time somebody did.”

“Stop!” I said it so loud I surprised myself.

Both men looked at me, stunned.

“You can’t say that,” I said, blasting. “Do you get that? It’s offensive. It offends me.”

I caught the eyes of Belly. I saw a jolt shoot through. It might have been shame. It could have been hate.

Mustache licked his lips, smiling. This excited him.

“It ain’t cuz he’s black!” screeched Belly. “It’s cuz what he’s done.”

His eyes flickered at me. My heart raced.

Why had I engaged this guy? I was not about to dissect Obama’s politics.

“You just called for the President’s assassination. You want a man to die.”

He shrugged. He looked over at Mustache who was waiting for him. He gave a look that was like a warm mug on a cold night. Camaraderie.

To them, I was the cold one.

I stared at the monitor and concentrated on the only man here who mattered to me.

Soon after, his doctor shook my hand. He had dark skin. He was of indeterminate ethnicity. He spoke calmly.

“We removed the masses. They’re benign.”

“But . . . do you have to test them?” I asked.

“Yes. The test results will be in a week, but they’re benign.”

My heart nestled into relief then jolted up again.

“But—”

“I know,” said the doctor, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I already know. They’re benign.”

I glanced down at my husband. He was just starting to rouse.

“How ya doin’, Dollface?” It’s just like him to be lighthearted at a time like this.

“You’re going to be fine.” I bent and said it gently in his ear. He was too groggy to get it yet.

After recovery, they insisted he take a wheelchair out to the car. They wheeled him out and parked him right next to Mary, Mustache’s wife.

I watched her get into a little Civic, slow and careful.

I didn’t wonder what the results of her biopsy would be. I couldn’t stop thinking about her husband, dusting off his gun.

And I drove my own husband back to Pittsburgh.

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3 Comments:

  1. Patricia says:

    Beautiful story

  2. David Williams says:

    Being of mixed race I understand your struggle more than most. Born in 1974 from a white mother and black father my life has been anything but the American Dream. After reading your stories I just might share mine one day. Keep writing, words inspire change!

  3. Tracey Cornwell says:

    As I read your post I felt as if you were writing from my experiences. Thank you for sharing and helping to inspire me with a sense of camaraderie.


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