“Do you like Muslims?”
Outside of a consignment (read thrift) store in the small town of Steinhatchee, Florida, I was a little taken aback by the question. My 19-year-old nephew and I had stopped in so I could find some vintage cassette tapes for a new project I want to work on, a bookshelf for Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. We had just dropped off the scallops we caught to be shucked down the street. As we were leaving, this questions was posed by an average looking white man.
It took me a moment to react. I knew it was directed at me. I knew that he was suspicious of my beard and dark skin. And I knew we were in a bit of a good old boy backwater. My first clue was finding no more than seven local restaurants on Yelp with a grand total of 54 reviews between all of them.
Yes, that sounds pretty snobby. And yes, not everywhere needs a place that serves macarons.
“I’m good with them, I don’t have any strong feelings one way or another,” I said truthfully.
I grew my beard out about four years ago. It came in black and wiry, with a lot of white (more now than then). I was mainly impressed with how my mustache grew in. After years of wispy goatees, my upper lip finally held its own.
I joke a lot about why I grew it out. I’m a hipster, it beats shaving, etc. But really, there were two reasons, my nose and chin. The former is too big, the latter too small. A beard fixes all these problems.
“Have you ever read the Koran?”
I’m befuddled at this point. Partly because I’m not sure if it’s spelled Quran. The few times I’ve dealt with people mistaking me for some level of Asian/Middle Easterner/Muslim have been few:
- A drunk wife of an MBA classmate yelling “Al Qaeda” at me from across the room. This was the first time we met, and she was drunk, so it was fine.
- My nephew (the same one outside the store with me) asking me if I was going for the terrorist look on purpose. He was not drunk when he asked this, just a teenager. So it was fine.
- Me, on meeting new people in other cities after travel, breaking the ice by telling them that I had to get my beard trimmed to get through TSA. And this is me being self-deprecating, so it’s fine.
- Please note that 1 through 3 are not actually fine, but I didn’t realize until this incident.
This, however, is the first time since Pulse, since Paris, since Istanbul, that anything like this has happened. In the previous instances, in what now seems like a more innocent time, there is a sense of playfulness, humor, however misguided and awful. This time is not playful.
“Nope,” I say, as I shake my head.
“Because if you did, there wouldn’t be any Muslims. There are some truly terrible things in that book.”
There’s a big part of me that wants to argue with him, but not because it will set him straight. I’m not knowledgeable about the Koran or even the Bible, despite years of Sunday school and altar boy duties. I’m certainly not well-versed in the parallels between the two books (Books?). I feel like there are plenty of things, terrible things, that happened in the Bible. But even if I was eloquent about them, it wouldn’t help.
I want to argue because I feel guilty about what I’m going to say next. That I have an escape route, a rip cord that I can pull anytime. Is it a version of white guilt? I haven’t walked a mile in anyone’s shoes, because if I shave, I go back to being pretty innocuous. No one says it better than C. Thomas Howell to an incredibly young looking James Earl Jones at the end of Soul Man: If I didn’t like it, I could always get out.
“Where are you boys from?”
“Daytona Beach,” my nephew says.
“Born and raised?”
It’s not just the chin and nose. I started growing out my beard when I started my MBA. I didn’t really feel like I belonged there, and this served as a mask of sorts. I could be a new person, and I could create this new face over my existing face. Steve Perry was kind of my inspiration for this line of thought.
I’m swarthy, I get it. I’ve been mistaken for Hispanic, Indian, Middle Eastern, Persian, Mediterranean, etc. If I dangled a cigarette out of my mouth and affect an indeterminate accent, I could be the villain in most Hollywood action movies. I should be the villain, they’re more interesting anyway.
“We’re Greek,” I concede. I feel like the villain, turns out it’s not a great feeling. I’m pulling the rip cord when I have a chance to… What? Educate this dude? He’s wearing a long sleeve button up shirt tucked into his jeans in 95 degree weather. He’ll shortly tell us why he overcompensated on his Land Cruiser, adding bigger fenders and bending a bunch of things so he can drive it up north for elk hunting season. He’ll tell us about a Greek pizza place he used to go to in Daytona. I literally couldn’t care less about this guy.
“But I was born in Canada.” By adding this, I hope to make him defensive again. This guy can’t like socialized medicine.
Being Greek is cool, apparently, but he wants some validation. He calls over the owner of the consignment shop, George Karageorge (AKA Karagias). A good old Greek boy who likes to talk. We exchange Greeklish greetings, and the man is satisfied with my backstory.
I’m not though. Is my beard holding me back? Is it the only thing people see? I was going for memorable, worse case, pretentious, worse-worse case, hipster. But is it frightening, intimidating, or threatening? Will I lose out on jobs, friendships, or loogie-free meals? Or, worse yet, will people wanting to show their broad tracts of tolerance befriend or hire me just for my chin hairs? Actually, that sounds pretty amazing.
George is a proud Greek, and recognizes me as one right away. He and his wife Sabrina run the consignment store, and I assume are incredibly skilled at interventions like this one.
George’s grandfather was a sponge diver, and when the trade dried up in Greece (pun!), he went to north Africa. When it dried up there, he and his first mate navigated the 68-foot wooden vessel across the Atlantic to the very sponge-worthy Tarpon Springs, Florida, just north of Tampa Bay. Eventually they moved north to Steinhatchee to open a restaurant. Since selling it, the joint doesn’t have the same level of feta and Kalamatas.
I leave feeling something. Not angry. Not great. I go back and talk to George and Sabrina. I’m glad they meet my son and sister. They talk and talk. I feel better. I like Muslims. Sometimes myself.