We were taking a family break in the Bay Area, which I see as one of the most delightfully diverse regions of our country. It’s a joy to stroll the streets there, go into the shops, ride public transit or visit landmarks while interacting with that veritable United Nations of residents and other visitors.
So in that wonderful melting pot, I was horrified to see a young father and his well-behaved toddler son being treated as lesser beings.
I didn’t see the entire confrontation in the rush-hour check-out-line on Good Friday. But I surmised from overheard comments that a vibratingly angry man was raging because his oh-so valuable time had been wasted as he waited in a long express line. Then he was delayed further because the clean-cut young father needed extra assistance.
The furious customer fumed and spewed at the female clerk. “I want to talk to the manager right now,” he thundered. “You should have immediately opened another express line if you wanted to spend so much time with … one of them.”
I suspect the father and boy were of Middle-Eastern descent, but they could have been of any ethnicity. Bigotry knows no boundaries.
The father’s eyes flashed with hurt and rage, but his shoulders slumped. He grabbed the little boy’s hand and they quickly left the store.
Meanwhile, the angry customer, still shaking with indignation, had stepped aside to wait for the manager. The cowed clerk began taking my groceries from the cart while keeping an eye on the complainant.
I knew I couldn’t accomplish anything by confronting the bigot directly, so I asked the flustered clerk to set aside my few items.
I dashed outside and walked quickly behind the father and his son. The child turned his head and saw me. He looked frightened and confused.
I winked, smiled, waggled my fingers at him and played a silent round of “peek-a-boo.” He grinned and giggled in a toddler-quick recovery.
His father spun around defensively, perhaps expecting another argument. I smiled and said, “Your child is so good and absolutely gorgeous. I expect the girls will start chasing him any day now.”
The man flashed a radiant smile, then looked at his little boy, who was continuing to flirt with me. “Oh, they already have,” the father said to us both, then softly added to me, “Thank you.”
I waved again to the child, then went back into the store knowing I’d done all I could under those unpleasant circumstances.
But the incident continues to trouble me, perhaps because I identify so strongly with the problems and hurts of legal immigrants.
As we all should.
According to my mother’s 1950s-era, pre-“Roots” genealogy research, her family is a blend of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, and they arrived here in the late 1600s. Immigrants, yes, but really early ones.
On the other side of the blanket, my father’s father came into the U.S. from Sicily, arriving by ship into New Orleans just in time to experience the strong anti-Italianism sentiments of that era.
So, part of my family’s just barely out of immigrant status, while my other ancestors have been here long enough for me to qualify for membership in the Order of Descendants of the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company, should I wish to join.
Our nation is a similarly strange and amazing blend of contradictions.
On one hand, we welcome an initial wave of talented immigrants, be they Italian artists, Irish musicians, Russian dancers, Hispanic craftsmen or African athletes.
Then we ostracize and vilify their countrymen when they arrive later in much larger groups.
Perhaps (I surmise again), when enough of “them” move here, that larger group has the potential to become a powerful force that could pose a political, economic or other threat to the traditional power base, which then lashes out with fear, bigotry and hatred.
Whatever the cause, the effect is ugly.
I just hope the little boy remembers the funny lady who flirted with him, not the loud-mouth in the store.
And I so wish someone could teach that nasty man our America isn’t us and them.
We’re all just us.
Kathe Tanner is a reporter for The Cambrian and The Tribune. Her "Slice of Life" column appears biweekly. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @CambriaReporter.