About a month ago, I helped a Muslim woman with her groceries in a supermarket parking lot. She was dealing with her kids and her shopping cart started to roll away from her car with the groceries still inside. As it rolled, I saw a decent society of tolerance and kindness rolling away. The cart’s one wobbly wheel–going chapocketa, chapocketa, chapocketa–was onomatopoetically tapping out a small drumbeat for the forced march to oblivion of all we hold dear.
Thank goodness I was there.
Thank goodness this country produces heroes like me.
I sprang into action. Walking more than a dozen yards without concern about the parking-lot traffic, heedless of the SUVs barreling along at 5 perhaps even 10 MPH–not even caring about what my fellow Americans might make of me giving aid and comfort to a Muslim woman. I knew that this woman’s faith in the American way of life was on the line! And I was going to do what was necessary! I grabbed that shopping cart and I pushed it through all the fear and bigotry this country has smothered that poor woman with. I pushed that shopping cart back to that woman’s minivan not so much so she could more easily unload her Cocoa Puffs, but because I have a dream. I have a dream that one day little Muslim boys and little Jewish boys, little Arab girls and little Scots-Irish girls will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers and push that great shopping cart we call “America” together–with their one free hand.
I don’t use the word “hero” lightly, but I am the greatest hero in American history. Except, maybe, for Al Gore.
Of course, I didn’t realize any of this until I read an essay in last week’s New York Times by one Fatina Abdrabboh, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. You see she is a Muslim woman too. And like that lady in the parking lot, she was in pain. She was working out at a stylish upscale gym in that known hotbed of anti-Muslim bigotry Cambridge, Massachusetts. All she was trying to do was work out, to build her physical strength to match the psychological and spiritual stamina required to persevere, on a daily basis, in that infamous City of Hate. But she couldn’t escape the oppression, which flooded around her like the Charles River breaking its banks. She tried to ignore the dirty stares from upscale Islamophobes looking to feel-the-burn in their pecs and then rain that heat a thousand-fold upon the Saracen hordes of Cambridge and, yes–dare to dream–New Haven. The in-house TV sets spewed hatred upon her.
“Every television in the gym highlighted some aspect of America’s conflict with the Muslim world: the war in Iraq, allegations that American soldiers had desecrated the Koran, prisoner abuse at Guantánamo Bay, President Bush urging support of the Patriot Act,” she explained. “The stares just intensified my alienation as an Arab Muslim in what is supposed to be my country. I was not sure if the blood rushing to my head was caused by the elliptical trainer or by the news coverage.”
Who among us hasn’t shared the same confusion!
“Frustrated and angry,” she voted with her feet against the Patriot Act and went to another part of the gym. She “got on a treadmill and started running as hard as I could.” But she couldn’t sweat out the hate. When she reached for her towel to mop-up the oppression, she dropped her keys!
Her keys, man! Her…keys!
“It was a small thing, I know, but as they slid down the rolling belt and fell to the carpet, my faith in the United States seemed to fall with them. I did not care to pick them up. I wanted to keep running.”
But then: Hope.
“Ma’am, here are your keys,” declared a smiling and friendly Al Gore, former vice president of the United States. “Mr. Gore had gotten off his machine behind me, picked up my keys, handed them to me and then resumed his workout.”
He got her keys! Al Gore saved her keys!
He didn’t let the values of Cambridge infect his soul. Now we know those chads dangled for a reason. That poor Muslim-Arab-American woman enjoying the good life at one of our most prestigious graduate schools didn’t have to pick up her keys! And the beautiful thing is, the pair were already so close to the JFK School, they could probably walk together for him to pick up his Profile in Courage Award!
“It was nothing more than a kind gesture,” she explained with false modesty, “but at that moment Mr. Gore’s act represented all that I yearned for–acceptance and acknowledgment.”
She concludes, “Mr. Gore’s act reminded me that rather than running away on my treadmill, I needed to keep my feet on the soil in this country. I left the gym with a renewed sense of spirit, reassured that I belong to America and that America belongs to me.”
Again, they have a word for people like Al Gore and me. And that word is “hero.”
Now, I’m sure many of you are as shocked as I was when I first read these words. Why didn’t Al Gore’s secret service detail swarm around this woman and cart her off to Gitmo if not for the crime of “working out while Arab” than at least for the equal sin of not wiping down the trainer after using it? That is U.S.–and gym–policy after all.
But let us forgive this breach in protocol just this once, for this is just too heartwarming a story. Where else but America–or possibly Canada–could such a tale transpire?
Let us also take a moment to honor the courage of the New York Times editorial board. So many of these men and women are products of Harvard and Cambridge themselves. (Recall, that just two years ago the Klavern of Klever Kambridgites showed their true colors and successfully schemed to have New York’s hometown newspaper endorse the Boston Red Sox over the New York Yankees). And yet they were willing to overcome their own personal legacies of bigotry. To evolve. They marched one by one from the primordial ooze of their own hatred into the office-supply closet and got little tiny bottles of Wite-Out® for their souls. They didn’t let their no doubt fond memories of late night, latte-soaked, bacchanalias of bigotry stop them from saving a little slice of America’s Most Important Op-Ed Page to speak truth to power.
There’s only one thing that eats at me like something that eats at something else. When I dashed across hot suburban pavement to save that shopping cart I knew that I was acting in the grand tradition of Patrick Henry (the one who held a door open for a Sikh at a Cleveland Jiffy Lube, not the mere American patriot). And we all can see that Al Gore was upholding and extending the greatest traditions of American generosity and selflessness when he perambulated to this woman’s treadmill and got those keys. And perhaps I’m being a tad too self-absorbed given the monumental stakes involved. But, you know, in my quiet, still, moments of reflection I sometimes think, “Would it have killed these people to say thank you?”