On seeing and saying

Most mornings when I walk the dog over near our town’s athletic fields, there are between two and four South Asian men (Pakistani? Indian? Sri Lankan? None of the above?) practicing cricket pitching and batting on the fenced-in basketball court. I’ve been seeing them there pretty regularly for a year or two, except when the court is covered in snow or ice. On rare occasions, there is a police car parked nearby, with an officer watching these men.

A year ago, after the arrest of the guy who attempted to bomb Times Square, there was a big FBI raid on a house near us. Apparently, one man in the house recently pleaded guilty to illegal money transfers, one of which ended up inadvertently going to the guy who attempted to bomb Times Square. I say “inadvertently” because that is what the plea agreement says, not because I have any inside knowledge of the case. At the time, I remember wondering if any of the cricket practicers had been caught up in that. They continued to show up for their practice sessions, though, so I assumed that they were not among those who got arrested that day.

As a result of when and where I walk my dog, I have a lot of coincidental encounters with people who are probably accustomed to being profiled as suspected or potential terrorists. In my rational brain, I know that the possibility that these people are up to no good (or even evil) is extremely remote. It is far more likely that they’re simply sharpening their cricket skills or getting their exercise in the early morning hours before going off to their jobs, or to prayer, or to school, or whatever they do with their days.

Since the month of May ushered in news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, and as news has trickled out about the information recovered at his compound, I’ve wondered what life has been like for these folks. To be frank, among my wonderings was whether the cricket players are, in fact, part of some long-term plot, and whether they’d go underground for awhile, post May 1. When I didn’t see them at all for most of that first week of May, my mind was a chaotic swirl of “What ifs.”

To my relief and confusion, I’ve seen the cricket players almost every day this week, but no police cars. I have always waved and said hello to these guys. When their cricket balls squeeze under the fence, I always pick them up and toss them back. There is no way for me to know if I’m making nice with men who are in some stage of planning something catastrophic. I wrestle with that every time I see them, and I hate it. I hate wondering, “Should I be writing down their license plate numbers, just in case? Why they don’t fix that dent in their car? Does it mean anything that they’re driving a minivan? Are the stuffed animals on the dashboard merely a diversion?” I hate being confronted with the evidence that my mind is even mildly infected by the paranoia-inducing message, “If you see something, say something.”

For whatever reason, something in today’s perfectly glorious spring morning provoked me to make a conscious choice to fight against my mild infection of paranoia. This morning, as I was picking up three stray cricket balls, I decided that, rather than throw them over the fence I would hand them to one of the guys. You know, have an actual personal interaction with him.

This stranger and his friends/family are part of my daily routine, and we are separated by many things, probably more than I can name. Under a festive blue spring sky, I focused on only one of the things that separated us: a pesky 12 foot high chain link fence. I smiled sympathetically at him. After all, this is the age-old problem of ball players throughout the world: the ball inevitably ends up on the other side of a fence, or in the yard of those people who don’t want other people in their yard, or into someone else’s game, or dozens of other possibilities. You either stop your game or practice to go get it, or you depend on other people to help you out.

Today, I did see something – the man’s stray cricket balls. Then walked over to the fence, reached my hand through the gap in the gate and, one by one, handed him the cricket balls. I did say something: “Here you go.” He reached his hands out to take them, grinned and nodded at me. Then he said something: “Thank you. Thank you very much!”

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6 responses to “On seeing and saying

  1. Thanks once more for voicing what we all think all the time. Am I being racist, paranoid, cautious, smart, or what? Sometimes it’s a good idea to be careful. A friend was walking in the Fenway area years ago and saw a young man of color coming toward her. Her first instinct was to cross the street. Her second thought was that she was being racist and silly. She was mugged, though thank heaven not physically harmed. We can’t possibly not react and wonder, given the news of the world, the wars we’re engaged in, and the general climate of suspicion around us. But until we know that there’s something to fear, I think the best course is to do what you did: return the balls, accept the thanks, walk the dog, and enjoy the cricket practice.

  2. Coincidentally, I had a good conversation with a Muslim colleague at work today, where I was reminded of how the average Muslim is subjected to indignities far too routinely. He lives in India and said he always has trouble in airports till they see that his business card features the logo of an American company.

    I told him, “When I had a business trip in Germany, my first time there, I remember feeling so anxious about being in Germany [based on its historical role in the Holocaust and my being Jewish] that I got pulled aside at the airport when we entered because I was suspiciously nervous…but I got stopped because *I* was acting suspicious, not because they were natively suspicious of me.” And then I told him about how right after 9/11, my trans friend Dana, opted to drive 14 hours from Atlanta to a conference in the Palisades, and back, as she didn’t want to be hassled at the airport, i.e., have TSA challenge her and be suspicious that she was a terrorist disguised as a woman. Too bad appearance is so influential. Everyone should have an instant way of recognizing everyone else’s humanity. Maybe someone will invent such a device, rather than relying on our individual brains’ discernment and fearlessness.

  3. Thanks so much for inspiring us to struggle against the paranoia that is so easily induced in an environment that too frequently fears those who are different!

  4. Thank you for this, Joy, I’m too inclined to hopeless despair sometimes (as when I read a newspaper report this week that disabled people are faced greater and increasing hostility from the public since the government launched its controversial benefits ‘reforms’ (which are designed primarily to say money)) and welcome reminders that we all have a part to play in changing the social environment by recognising, and refusing to be driven by, our own prejudices – and not to throw up our hands in despair and turn inwards.

  5. Sorry, that’s the UK govt by the way – I’m English. Just in case I confused anyone there! ;)

  6. Renee Daniels

    i love how you’re brave enough to say what most of us aren’t.
    you’re something else, almost-birthday girl.

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