I really need to learn to stop telling people that I’m Palestinian. It invariably creates questions and conversations at times when I’d much rather just be reading while waiting for the bus or train. Do real Jewish people get asked by strangers with unsettling regularity for confirmation of their stereotypical genetic markers?
I have never had someone react quite the way a woman at my morning bus stop did last Monday, however. Here, let me set it up:
Every workday I walk from home in the old residential area of town to one our more ridiculous bus stops. Situated in front of a Plaid Pantry, the area’s answer to the 7-11, this stop sees the passage of innumerable drunks, commuting children, people getting off graveyard shifts and so on. There’s a coffee kiosk behind it, run by Wayne, one of the more endearing Canadian-Americans I know. He’ll be putting out a-board signs with the day’s specials as I walk up, or shortly after, and we always wish each other good morning. I meander a couple of yards past the bus shelter so I can finish my cigarette and start in on the day’s read while keeping a clear view of the road through the cherry trees.
It’s nice. It is routine. I won’t be home for another ten or eleven hours and I like my handful of minutes sitting there, enjoying the morning. I will give people cigarettes and lights and talk about the weather with Wayne, but I fiercely treasure those moments of quiet where it is just me and my book and a raucous group of birds across the street.
But Monday. Monday when I walk up to the stop I hear Wayne interacting with an overly cheerful lady. Being a crazy ray of sunshine himself he barely falters as she learns his northern origins and shouts “God Bless Canada!”
I start in on my book, the back of my neck tracking the cheerful woman’s movements. When you are antisocial, talkative people inspire cold-war levels of paranoia and preparation against learning far too many facts about their pets and their children and their Jesus. I believe I flinched when she called “Morning!” from the shelter of one of the town’s monstrous sequoias. Assuming that I was not her intended target, since I was clearly reading, I ignored her. Totally in vain. “Morning!” she called again.
Against every inner will, politeness took over and I turned, painfully, to regard her. I gave her a “Good morning,” and returned to my book. Taking my words as an invitation to make friends, the woman wandered over to where I sat and began talking at me. I tried my best to look very interested in my book, eyes returning to the page during every pause in her rambling speech.
I couldn’t really tell if she was intoxicated or naturally unaware of social signals. She was engulfed in a red sweatshirt, her hair looking like it had been done the morning before and not touched since, half-matted and the straw blonde of a woman in her forties still trying to overcome mousey brown at home. There was a feather stuck at a wilting angle in her hair, which clashed a little with the crushed orange plastic lei.
When she asked me about the book I was reading I told her it was science fiction. This launched a weird anecdote on her part about Scientology and some gathering in the city her nine year-old daughter had seen. “And she told me she liked what they were talking about, and here’s this little girl who doesn’t know anything and what does that show us?”
A handful of completely inappropriate answers ran through my brain, but I just shrugged. She became more animated.
“It shows that we should be able to pick whatever we want to believe in and nobody should be able to stop us.” Which, okay, I totally agree, but it didn’t really parse in context. Her small comments and conversation continued, to my dismay, hitting on several themes before she asked my name.
“Oh, that is a lovely name,” her level of sincerity was absolute and I wondered what the rest of her hair was doing, since only half of it looked to be in the braid. “It’s from?”
“It’s Irish.” I smiled with my eyes and tried to go back to my book. But she had to tell me how nice it was, the name and so on. Somewhere in there I told her I was a warehouse manager and her soliloquies became tinged with feminism, since I guess that is a job I had to wrest from the hands of some guy.
“So you’re Irish and—what else? You look Jewish.”
I sighed. “I’m Palestinian.” Which is a heavy simplification, but honestly—when you’re evenly mixed ethnically and culturally, it’s easier to just pick what people think you look like. And telling people I’m a kind of Arab tends to make them leave me alone, which was rather not so in this case.
I’d barely finished the last syllable when her eyes welled up, pooling above expertly applied black liner. Her face contorted with pain and I felt myself on the edge of utter confusion.
With a voice nearly cracking under the weight of emotion it bore, she gathered herself and looked directly into my eyes, “Oh no. Poor Palestine.” Eyes closed and she took a breath before looking at me again. “I need to tell you. I am so sorry for the Christian War.”
What do you say to that?
And what do you say, besides uncomfortable murmurs of consolation, when a complete stranger who has roped you into a one-sided conversation begins working herself up over the unjust treatment of a people she has decided you are a representative of?
Having finished my cigarette, I moved to the curb, willing the bus to hove around the corner at the end of the line, while she paced, darting her hands in small chops to underscore points. She stopped in front of the bus shelter and I realised we weren’t talking about race any more.
“When I was a girl I thought I was a queen, putting on hats. But I’m not. But all women are queens.”
“Okay.” I said. “Sure.”
She came up close to me, I watched the freckles warp across her face while she was struck with another wave of emotion as she brought the conversation back around to Palestine. I wondered where the bus was.
“Can I ask you, honey, what religion are you?” I considered this for a second.
“My great grandparents left Palestine because they were Catholic.” Another oversimplification, and not really an answer, but it seemed appropriate. She laughed.
“Well! That would be a good reason to leave! But you know, and don’t take offence, but the only true Catholics are Episcopalians.” I nodded and she moved in front of me, blocking my view of the road.
“Let’s pray.” She put her hand on my arm and said a few words that were a surprisingly lucid, non-denominational statement of general hope. I saw the bus finally turn the corner behind her shoulder as we said amen.
As I was pulling out my pass she hugged me lightly and kissed me on the cheek. She called out behind me while I moved towards the opening doors.
“You have a good day! This day is yours, it is my gift to you!” And it was, more or less. But seriously, I am just going to start telling people that yeah, sure, I’m Jewish.