"Truth is generated from its environment; in that way it becomes a powerful reality."
- Chögyam Trungpa
The man is a regular. He's a thin man, with dark hair and a work-worn face stretched from years of cigarettes and morning coffee and whatever it is he does to earn a living during the day, and he sits at the counter sipping slowly from his cup. Some of the other servers have complained about him in the past, about how he rifles through the pile of discarded checks next to the register, looking for unused coupons that other customers have carelessly left behind. Why does he need two dollars off? All he gets is coffee and toast... A cheapskate, some of them call him, even though he always tips a dollar, just to sit and read the newspaper and joke with the other regulars.
This morning, I'm wiping down the metal knobs and syrup dispensers before refilling the small red buckets of sanitizer and replacing the old used rags with fresh ones. It's early, before seven still, and dawn is flat like a diorama beyond the restaurant window. Behind me, the regular complains to his buddy. "They're shutting down half the city for the G-20, I don't know if we'll be able to get any work done. Maybe they'll give us the week off, but I doubt it. Anyway, you won't be able to get anywhere..." His buddy makes some amused grunt and pours one tiny creamer into his own coffee mug, delicately pinching the white plastic between his large, grubby fingers. "Well, hopefully the cops'll beat up some protesters anyway. And catch it on film, so they can play it on TV, over and over..."
I barely even flinch or pause in my cleaning. It's no surprise that the man is a committed conservative. He once complained about Obama perpetuating fraud against the U.S. government because he wasn't born inside the United States (I did not bother to point out to him that Hawaii is, in fact, part of the United States, whereas McCain was born in Panama). To complain about such matters when the previous administration allowed wire-tapping of citizens, torture of unjustly detained prisoners, and an illegal war based on false evidence... well, it was already clear the man didn't derive all his political priorities from careful reasoning and unbiased sources.
But I struggle to get over this last remark nonetheless. During my college days, and occasionally afterwards, I had been a protester. I had "turned my back on Bush" at his second inauguration, only to come face to face with a fat little man wearing an "I Salute Dick Cheney" baseball cap and baring his teeth through spittle at me and the thin, hippie-dressed girl beside me as we raised our fists in peace signs over our heads. I had marched in D.C. just a week after the Iraq War had begun; I had stood among others at peace vigils in the chill of winter and the reawakening of spring alike during the following years, holding stubby candles in flimsy paper cones to catch the dripping wax. I had swallowed tears of frustration and anger over Katrina and the slaughtering in the Gaza Strip, attended talks, lectures and poetry readings, wandered through galleries of photographs bearing stolid, unflinching witness to the things human beings can do to each other.
For all the man knows, I could be protesting come September, when a handful of the obscenely rich come to meet in my city, a city half-empty and struggling from collapsed industry, trying to rebuild with dignity, culture, art, medicine and education. I could be in the streets soon, holding up signs or handing out pamphlets asking why we still believe, so gullibly, that these men of power have our best interests in mind and not merely their own. I could be protesting, giving voice to the incredulity and hope in my bones. I have thought about it. Even though the papers say that G-20 protesters are struggling against government opposition for their right to legal permits for protest space. I've thought about marching in the streets, adding my voice to those who object, who say "no" when so many others hunch up, keep their heads low and try to avoid trouble. I am lucky, in some ways; I have very little to lose.
"Fucking protesters, man." The man chuckles to himself as his buddy finishes adding creamers to his styrofoam cup and leaves two dollar bills for the coffee at the front register before heading out the door. Then the regular is left alone at the counter, one hand wrapped around his warm mug, the other playing absent-mindedly with the edge of a napkin. I see him almost every morning I work, and sometimes I pass him on the street as I walk the neighborhood on my days off. He always greets me with amiable familiarity, trusting in the gentleness and civility that I have cultivated in my work as a waitress. To him, I must seem like a Nice Quiet Girl, and he's not really wrong in thinking so.
"Did you hear me honk, this morning?" he asks me as I'm refilling his cup. "You were walking up Monroe Avenue--I honked, but I didn't know if you heard me."
"O, that was you?" I smile, though my mind is still churning silently over his last comment, imagining the officer--maybe one I know, maybe one who comes in for breakfast and gets his meal for half-price--imagining the raised baton, or the mace or taser, imagining the officer approaching a row of us pacing along the curb, signs wavering and drooping as we wonder whether we should run...
"You walk alone to work like that every day, in the dark? You'd better be careful..."
"O, it's not really that dark, it's early morning by the time I'm walking to work, except in the winter when it's too cold for anyone else to be out. And this is a good neighborhood, I've never had any problems."
"Still, I hope you carry something--a handgun or something. There are a lot of crazy people out there."
For a moment, my sarcastic sense of humor whispers like a friendly devil in my ear, No shit, I'm looking at one... Carry a gun, for gods' sake!? This is a family neighborhood, with children, and dog-walkers out before the sun comes up. I know my neighbors, medical students, and grandparents whose grandkids visit on weekends, elderly Jewish ladies whose families have owned houses on this hill for generations, and young yuppy couples biking through the wooded park to their yoga classes. Carry a gun! But even this man, this regular who sips coffee and munches on his toast for forty-one cents on someone else's coupon...even he isn't the "crazy" people I might fear, if there are such people. He, too, is part of the neighborhood in its stability and community. I don't believe for a second that he would wish me harm, and as he looks at me over his coffee, I can tell that even his cautions and advice come from a place of goodness and caring for my welfare, no matter how mistaken they may be.
I wonder if that would change if he knew my political views. I wonder how he would feel if it was me on television being beaten by the cops, if it was my slim, defiant body huddled against the pavement, arms bracing against the blows. He didn't believe I was at the Superbowl riots in Oakland last winter, standing quietly in the snow completely sober and awake to the night, as students raged around me smelling of beer and sweat-dampened scarves, setting broken furniture on fire and tipping over cars. I watched the new horned moon set between buildings and let the pulse of city energy run through me, allowing it to swell and subsided into stillness again. I seem small, maybe even fragile, but I am hardly ever afraid. There are people much bigger than me, much less sure of their own power, who carry fear with them everywhere, like a handgun. He doesn't believe I could be a protester, some messy liberal pussy with nothing better to do than make trouble, someone who deserves a beating, sport for the hard-working, entertainment for the up-standing. I have worked to become gentle, kind, self-disciplined--he likely believes I am both too weak and too sensible to be caught screaming and waving my anger in the air under a banner of anti-anything.
It's not so much that he's wrong about me. He is wrong about protesters.
"What is wrong with spelling out the truth? When you spell out the truth it loses its essence and becomes either 'my' truth or 'your' truth; it becomes an end in itself. But by implying the truth, the truth doesn't become anyone's property.
When the dragon wants a rainstorm he causes thunder and lightning. That brings the rain."
- Chögyam Trungpa
Protesters aren't some special category of crazy leftist hippies. They're just people, of course, but then it depends on what you think of people. Despite some of my experiences in this world so far--watching unjust war, corruption and greed, fear-mongering and propaganda, starving children wasting away to support extravagant lifestyles for the wealthy on the other side of the world--despite this, I trust in a fundamental goodness in human beings. There is a beauty to the mess and flux of the world, and people share in this beauty, striving in all kinds of ways, through stupidity and ignorance, through kind intentions and fears of failure, to become better, to do what is good. I have never had reason to doubt this, never in my experience come upon a person who did not have some good in them working its way out.
The regular, sitting before me at the counter with concern on his face, is not an evil man, not a person who would sincerely wish violence on another person. When he jokes about cops beating marchers, he does so casually, almost as if it doesn't actually happen, not in the real world, not to real people. He has forgotten how to really look at other people, to see in them the complexity and messiness that reflects his own. He sees people--or, anyway, some people--merely as means to an end, as the irritable causes of effects in the political world that he does not like, causes that should be stopped, gotten rid of. I cannot agree with him on this view of people, and because I can't agree, I also can't hate him for it. He is not a Reason This Country Is Going to Hell... he is just a man, foolish and messy, with good in him working its way out.
So how do I correct him? Can I spell out the truth for him? No doubt there have been plenty of people dictating the problems of war and corruption, putting forth arguments and making passionate pleas. Sometimes I add my voice to this crowd, crying out for justice and peace and compassion. I am someone who speaks out, who acts to demonstrate my commitments and my ideals. But I am more than that, more than a voice in the crowd, more than a protester and conscientious objector, more than a mind twisting and twirling facts into the strong ropes that hold together an argument for peace and local community building. I am also the young woman who serves this man coffee four mornings a week, and helps him sort through two-dollar-off coupons.
When a person discovers the basic goodness in herself and in others, she discovers fearlessness. She discovers that there is no reason to be afraid, even when destruction and death threaten. Destruction isn't personal, and there is no cause for resentment. When a person discovers this inner strength, this courage within her, she becomes gentle with others as well as herself, she does not worry so much about correcting every wrong view around her. She trusts. Because she knows that the way to remedy fear is not to render life docile and harmless through explication, but to encourage others to discover the goodness in themselves. How to do that? It takes courage to face this truth (though why it should be so hard to admit to ourselves that we might be basically good just the way we are I've never quite figured out). But you cannot just tell people about it; to explain it would rob them of the opportunity to embody courage themselves, to face this truth on their own.
In the end, I don't say anything to the man at the counter. I cannot change his view of people except by being most truly myself, by treating him with respect and gentleness, holding up a mirror that he might see his goodness belying his prejudices, revealing his blindspots. In the end, I don't say anything, this time. There is nothing I could say that I am not already saying with my being, with my presence there full of everything I am--pacifist and intellectual and poet and mystic--all crammed into the body of some unassuming waitress, coffee pot in one hand, clean rag in the other.