In the neighborhood coffee shop, the Christmas tree is still up in the corner, decorated with ribbons and tissue-paper flowers, trying to pass itself off, I suppose, as a Fiesta tree, although that event has come and gone as well.
A table of ladies have their laptops out, lunching and working on a volunteer project for a local animal rescue group. One of the tribe is late and lost, and a woman in Birkenstocks is animated as she gives directions, making hand signals the person on the phone can’t see, creating imaginary streets in the air in front of her.
I smile. I do this, too. Still prone to get left and right confused, so I draw maps with my hands to double-check myself.
She laughs and jumps up, exclaiming out the window “I see you, I see you! No, you drove by!” She runs out the door to flag down her flustered friend and soon, they are both coming inside, hugging and buzzing with the business of catching up.
The older couple sits on the red leather chairs, catching up with their granddaughter home from college for the long weekend. They tease with the shop owner, who is wearing a t-shirt pledging her allegiance to the rival team.
“We’re not supposed to get along, I guess,” laughs the shop owner. But they do, of course, with interaction as warm as my green tea chai. There is plenty of room for common ground over chicken salad sandwiches.
The businessman in the lavender shirt has chosen a seat far in the back, typing on spreadsheets and sending emails, meeting with clients.
As the business concludes, his voice gets louder as he starts telling a story.
“So this conservative black guy is handing out ‘don’t tread on me’ stickers, and of course THEY don’t like that. THEY don’t want anyone black to disagree with them so THEY start beating him up.” He gets angrier. His voice rises.
“So of course people start bringing guns and things to the rallies for OUR own protection, and then THEY turn it into something that says WE are the radicals when THEY are the ones at fault.”
“It’s what THEY always do,” he says with certainty. “Start something and then cry about it when WE fight back. It’s how THEY are.”
I feel myself getting angry and defensive. Part of me wants to confront him, challenge him to prove his ridiculous anecdotes. I want to ask him why, even if the incident ever happened, that bringing assault weapons to a town hall meeting is the right response. I want to tell him that stories like his epitomize everything that is wrong with the political discourse in this country, that we would rather demonize the opposition than solve problems.
But more than angry, I feel sad. In the 40 seconds of overhearing his story, I have become a “THEY.” Not the woman two tables over writing on her laptop, finishing up a green chai latte before meeting the school bus. Not the wife, not the mom, not the churchgoer, not the neighbor, not the friend.
Just a “they.”
And of course, he has become my “they,” too. Not the businessman worried about making ends meet, finishing his iced mocha before heading to another meeting. Not the father, the husband, the neighbor, the churchgoer, the friend. Just a “they.”
I walk past his table to take a call outside, and it’s like it has a force field around it. He doesn’t look up, I don’t say hello. I sit down and start writing this story. I expect to end it throwing up my hands. There’s no reasoning with “them.”
But then, as he leaves, he walks past a dog waiting outside for its owner. It barks and he bends down, making silly faces and clicking sounds as he extends a hand. The dog stops barking and comes over, letting him scratch behind its ears.
I smile at the scene out the window, and he sees me and smiles back. He waves as he gets into his car.
Suddenly, he’s not a “they,” but a dog-petter, a waver who uses his signal before he changes lanes.
I take a deep breath, rewrite the ending. Decide next time, I will start a conversation. Maybe, find common ground over chicken salad sandwiches.