Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Watching You Watch Them Watch Me: A Parable

And so, yesterday this happens: 

I take Steve early in the morning for a colonoscopy. As I sit in the clinic's waiting room, my current book to keep the world at bay firmly clutched in hand (it's Suzanne Berne's The Ghost at the Table, an engrossing read for anyone who has ever lived in a crazy family a family), people all around me clang, chirp, clatter on cellphones. It's Bedlam, I'm telling you: pure, unadulterated madness as phones ring hither and yon and people sitting in the confined space of the waiting room--where I'm reading, for god's sake! Are you people blind?--answer them without a fare-thee-well or a by your leave, and talk blithely away about nothing at all, in stentorian voices that would effortlessly project across the width of a football field.

(When "we" became people that behave this way interests me. I don't recall "us" being anything like this when I was growing up, but maybe my memory fails me.)

As I try to employ my usual grab-bag of shaming and censoring tricks in such circumstances (which never work, since the kind of folks inclined to gab on a cell phone in a public waiting room are already beyond shame), I watch the gabbers. I fidget, sigh loudly, cast dark glances in their direction, and when I'm not too obvious about it, I look directly at them, because forms of life we imagine to be different from ourselves are inherently interesting and deserve study, do they not?

There's the middle-aged woman with frosted hair down the aisle from me, in clothes too tight and too young for her, who also has a book, but chooses to respond to the tinkle of her gadget and launch into a very personal conversation with someone called "I love you, too, baby." There's the man slouched down unattractively in his chair, legs splayed out with sandals on the end of them, white athletic socks covering his bare feet, who talks noisily about where elevators are "at," and how someone at the other end might find them if he wants to find where the cellphone man is "at."

And then a group come in, directly across from me, and immediately attract my attention because of how the three women--grandmother, mother, and daughter, I can easily see--are dressed and comport themselves. In my part of the world, it is rather easy to spot women who belong to some of the Pentecostal churches that have strong footholds in the mid-South because these women wear no makeup, have their long, uncut hair piled in buns on top of their heads, and wear ankle-length or slightly shorter skirts, usually in a somber fabric that mimics what I think various stores imagine pioneer women wore.

These people all sit down along with a man obviously married to the middle woman and obviously the father of the youngest, and husband, wife, and daughter all immediately begin twiddling away furiously on what I believe may be called I-pads or I-phones. The father (who's the one coming in for a colonoscopy) has earphones in his ears, too, so that he's listening to something as he twiddles.

And then his phone rings--repeatedly--with the most annoying cellphone ring God ever designed, the one that sounds like an old phone from my childhood: ring, ring, ring! He answers. He talks. We who are sitting in the waiting room have no choice except to hear what he says. Because he talks in a sounding voice, oblivious to the presence of any of us except whoever is at the other end of the ring, ring, ring.

This happens all over again before he is eventually and blessedly called back--there is a merciful God, after all!--for his procedure. I watch all the while, frankly appalled and frankly ashamed to be appalled, since I know that at least part of my reaction to these people I don't know from Adam is that, deep in my childhood, I was taught by my family to consider "holy rollers" a people apart.

A people not quite like us: people who give the rest of us evangelicals a bad name by, well, that rolling. And that speaking in tongues. And not wearing makeup, and that hair! And the dresses. 

There was a thinly disguised implication in everything I ever heard as a child about people of a Pentecostal persuasion that people like us are more respectable, and only people willing to fall to the bottom of . . . everything . . . would choose to become Pentecostals. This thinly disguised prejudice reflected a hostility based in the historic reality that those who became Pentecostals in the formative period of the Pentecostal churches had been Baptists and Methodists like us.

They had not kept up side. They had jumped a fence. They had crossed a line. They had fallen, we imagined, and so we lumped them all together and decided that they were not us; they had become the definition of disdained religious otherness, to be studied covertly and in just the scornful way I was, I'm ashamed to admit, almost certainly employing as I watched this family group across the waiting room, and threw loud, angry sighs in the direction of the father with the ring, ring, ring.

And then this happens: a mother and father with two small children, a tiny, adorable little boy just beginning to walk, and a tiny, adorable little girl a year or so older, come in and sit down. The two children play with their toys, and occasionally let out ear-splitting shrieks. They happen to be Mexican, and the parents switch back and forth from Spanish to English, speaking English with an accent I imagine to be Chicago (the Pentecostal family also seem to hail from someplace in the upper Midwest, by the way).

As the children scream, the receptionist runs in and informs the mother that they have to go downstairs to the play room. The mother ignores her. Instead, she gets up (the father has by now been called back for his colonoscopy) and moves closer to me. 

My attention is now divided between the family with children, the Pentecostal family across the way, the man with sandals and white socks, and the woman with the hair and the clothes down the aisle from me. The family with children become endearing, the closer they sit to me, because the children are simply adorable as they play, give or take a few nerve-wrenching screams that I'd gladly forgo.

But I quickly decide that not a single thing those children might do (and the mother is great with them, firm but soft-spoken, quickly corralling them when they seem about to bother someone else) is going to trouble me in the least, for this reason: after the receptionist tells the mother to take the children downstairs to the play room and the mother ignores her, I look up from my book to study my other three objects of study, and I find both the frosted-hair woman and the Pentecostal women studying the Mexican family. With undisguised hostility.

As if they are insects in a biological study. The Pentecostal mother actually sits up in her chair and arches her eyebrows, then begins whispering to the grandmother, all the while keeping the mother and her children fixed in their sight as they whisper and shake their heads. The lady in my aisle casts me a collusive glance, rolling her eyes in the direction of the mother and children, and sighing loudly. She has taken my sighs at her rudeness in nattering away on a cellphone in a public waiting room as what I do, I conclude--not my arch, ingenious response to her behavior!

And is there not some parable in this story of me watching them who in turn watch me and expect me to collude with them in snubbing a family with young children who are strangers in our land? At the very least, this strikes me as a parable about what I'm willing to endure from people who are not given a chance: my first instinct was to be appalled when those tots screamed, and at the mother's refusal to take them away from the waiting room.

But the minute I saw the others in the waiting room who had appalled me by talking on their cellphones begin to look censoriously at the Mexican mother and her children, my loyalties shifted dramatically, and I would have gladly endured any screams of the highest decibel from those children. Because they deserve the same chance in life anyone else deserves, and they deserve not to be judged according to their ethnic background, their real or imaginary immigration status, their mother language, their culture, their socioeconomic status, or the color of their skin.

Especially not by people who have no more couth than to gabble on cellphones in public waiting rooms, or to sit and sigh loudly and cast judgmental glances at people because of how they happen to dress or speak, or what their religious background happens to be . . . . 

Which is to say, people like me. A parable: a story we imagine is being told about someone else, only to have our imagination suddenly and uncomfortably subverted, as we realize we ourselves are the subject of the story.

And of its critique.

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