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Monday, June 24, 2002
By Paul Ford
A Sunday night walk down Court St.
On Court and Bergen, there was a man in a moon suit getting into a van, and the block was taped off, cops and firetrucks everywhere, one boxy white truck that said “Bomb Squad.” I asked a small man with a press pass around his neck and a news camera in his hands what was happening. He had an Eastern European accent and a beard. “They have found a suspicious package,” he said, and moved on.
It was Sunday night. I was walking home from the movies, looking for dinner. I'd gone alone to the big theater below Atlantic, right after the Y. The movie was based on a Philip K. Dick story, and wasn't much good, but had been distracting.
I stood behind the yellow tape with a few other folks, all of us trying to get home, and thought, I wonder if it's a dirty bomb. I imagined my body reduced to pieces, fragments flying up to Atlantic Avenue, a deadly circle of radiation sketched on the map of Brooklyn, everyone inside here dies, everyone else just gets cancer.
Why would they blow up the Tex Mex restaurant? Or the church or the daycare? A man a few inches shorter than me came up and asked me what happened. “A sus, suspicious package,” I said, having some trouble with the words, realizing I hadn't spoken a word all day.
He nodded, and said, “A lot of Arabs live in this neighborhood.”
“Yes,” I said, not getting it. A Yemeni Airways office and an Arabic CD store were within a few blocks. On Atlantic you find Halal butchers and shops selling Qurans, and Sahadi's delicatessen, which has hummus as good as in Jerusalem.
“They should take all those fucking Muslims and send them home. Just kill them.”
I turned slowly, mouth open, squinting in surprise. He was pale skin, white-haired, in his 50s, narrow-eyed, in shorts and a T-shirt.
“Are you kidding? They have a right to live here. They're American, like you.”
“These fucking Muslim ragtops. They're going to blow up the church.”
“Muslims aren't going to blow up Cobble Hill.” He was obviously surprised I didn't agree. In his world, I doubt anyone doesn't. “You don't know it's Muslims. You don't know if it's a bomb. It could be a fucking cake box someone dropped on the curb.”
“You wait until they come for you,” he said, “Kill all of them now. Send them back.”
I paused, took a needed breath. “I'm real sorry you feel that way,” I said. He tried to say something else, and I felt a sudden surge, a desire to push, bite, grab, spit. I looked down and said, “We're not going to have this discussion, you understand? I won't listen to you say that shit. That's a terrible way to think.”
He sized me up, then turned away, stepped back. I wanted to leave and go home - it suddenly struck me how stupid it is to watch a bomb disposal team at work - but I didn't want to give the impression that I was backing away. A small woman and two tall men, one of the men in a Greenpeace T-shirt, came up behind the white-haired man. He turned. “They've got a bomb,” he said. “Fucking Muslims.” The man in the Greenpeace shirt nodded. “I went to school in that church. They're going to blow it up, goddamn them,” he said.
Paul, silence. I turned over to the red-brick church, catacorner from where we stood, and then at the back of the white-haired man's head. I wanted to say, The priests didn't do a very good job with you, did they?
The man in the moon suit walked across Court St. carrying something heavy. Lights flashed; walkie-talkies buzzed. I tensed my muscles, leaning against a phone booth, hoping the man would turn and point to me, say “And this one thinks that Muslims deserve to stay in America” so that I could throw my shoulders back and lower my voice, call him a racist, a lousy Catholic, and an idiot. I imagined him throwing a punch, which I'd take silently, my own arm arcing in response, a big right fist connecting roughly with his jaw. I imagined the subsequent arrest, 5 cops standing 6 feet away. But the white-haired man didn't look at me; he muttered and cursed to himself, not finding any audience.
I waited a few more minutes, then ducked under the police tape and turned left. I turned back to make sure the white-haired man didn't shout anything after me, some huge part of me wanting to get back and attack, but he was looking at the fire truck. I walked to Smith then down towards home, shooting furious glances at all the men and women out for dinner and drinks. How can they laugh and tell stories and eat and drink with this ignorance in the world, with bombs about to go off two blocks away? Any other night I would be one of them.
I felt a muttering fury curling up from the ground, felt myself drawn back, wanting to draw the white-haired man into a fight. I cursed, crossing President St. I am not going to throw a punch, I am not violent; I'm twice his size, and it would be totally unfair. I am going to give myself the advice I so liberally give others: be grateful you were there to hear him speak his beliefs. You can't change him, but you can learn from that, think about it, remember it - remember that this is how a huge number of people feel, that he's one of millions, that your gaggle of college-educated lefty artist pals keep you protected from that great sweeping wave of ignorance.
A few years ago I would have nodded like the man in the Greenpeace shirt, shrugged off the white-haired man's wish for mass deportation in silence, let him ramble. But in the last month I've been working out, eating almost nothing out of plastic bags, and I keep finding new reservoirs of anger in my stomach, where before I could cover them with bread and meat, anger instead of fear.
But maybe he lost someone in the WTC and has stupidly focused his grief on Muslims. But maybe he does good for someone, somewhere. But maybe he is a father and his children need him. Maybe he is lonely and stupid, and simply doesn't know any better. Maybe he is not beyond redemption.
When he said his vile piece, I told him he was wrong. That was the best I could do. I remember the taxi driver in Israel the night of September 11, who told me that you'd need to kill Arab babies to stop terrorism:
I took a cab and the driver said that Americans were soft and that he was once a tank commander, and that he wanted to see all Arabs die. You cannot fight terrorism, he said and what you should do is for each suicide bomber, kill his family. And he moved his hands to show that he felt that he meant the tallest man and, yes, he said, even the littlest baby. Kill them all. Then you will see. Think about what I'm saying, he said, in two years. You will see. I did not say anything; I just let him talk because at that point if I opened my mouth I had no idea if what would come out, and I thought about how much I would like to grab his head and beat it repeatedly into the side window of the cab, until we ran off the road into a metal telephone tower, both of us dying in an explosion of sparks and gasoline. But most I just wanted the ride to be over, to not have to talk about it anymore. (Run From Ground Zero)
He asked me to think about what he was saying after two years, but it's been almost a year, now, and I still disagree. And now I want to open my mouth, and I have an idea about what will come out when I do. Slow progress, but progress.