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Where Prejudice Begins
“Hurry up!!! We’re going to be late!!!”
Those were the last words I heard before my consciousness frightened me awake from an intensely lurid dream.
“I’m up, I’m up, I’m up!!!” I yelled back at my sister as she started to unload the bags from the car. The car? How did I even make it to the car? All I remembered was going to sleep in my bed the previous night, and then nothing. Well, I suppose that’s what happens when you’re five almost six, and your mom books the six a.m. flight to San Francisco to go see some long lost college friend or something or another.
I lethargically crawled out of the car and fell into a half-asleep state that I stayed in until we had unpacked the car and made it to the check-in line. I leaned up against the sturdiest bag I could find and my mind began to slip through my fingers like sand as I fell asleep again. I slept for what seemed like mere seconds until I was abruptly awoken by the gentleman in front of me who decided to move up and take his nice sturdy bag with him. I fell and landed with a clunk.
“Okay, I’m awake now,” I told myself as I arose and began to look for a clock. I spotted one on my mother’s wrist and saw that it was either 6:10 or 10:06, I still couldn’t tell time very well. As the line began to progress like the legs of a centipede, and we neared the front of the enormous bug, I spotted a man. A man unlike the men I knew. He wasn’t tall like my dad, fat like my uncle, or white like me. He was different. I began to analyze him as best a five year old could; he was about as tall as my mom (5’ 8”), wearing a business suit, with a long, coarse beard littered with gray hairs, and a funny looking hat that was a series of wrappings and weavings that were made with the same kind-of-looking toilet paper that the Mummy’s used. He resonated with familiarity and I could have sworn I had seen him before. School? No, no one at school wore a suit or toilet paper on their head. Church? No, there were plenty of suits at church but still no toilet paper. Where then? Then it jumped on me like Mario jumps on Bowser. He was on TV!
“MOMMY!! MOMMY!! MOMMY!!” I yelled at the tip- top of my lungs.
“Shhhh, sweetie! We’re in an airport, not the park. Inside voices, please,” she sweetly cajoled.
“Mommy, that guy’s on TV!”
“The one at the counter?”
“Yeah! Isn’t he the guy with the big red letters that say WON’TED?”
“Oh no. NO, no, no, no sweetie! He isn’t the wanted man. That man isn’t in the United States.”
“But he’s right there Mommy!! The man who blew up the buildings when school started!”
At that everyone turned and looked. They looked with a sense of panic and anger at me and at my mother and looked desperately around for the WANTED man. At that my mother grabbed me and clasped her hand around my mouth. It hurt.
“Liam! Be quite! We don’t need to scare everyone! Now please be quite and I will explain everything on the plane, okay?” She said it with such a perfect combination of panic, calm, and a hint hilarity that the only thing I could responded with was a nod. The man moved, and the centipede progressed ever onward.
“And what’s your name, little guy?” asked the overzealous lady in blue with a special button that said “Security” on it.
“L-eee-um. I’m six.” I lied as all almost six year olds do.
“That’s nice. NEXT!!”
I was quickly scooted to a line with my mother in-tow behind me as she gave my sister and me instructions. I did as she said. I put backpack in a cubby-drawer and took my jacket off. I move toward the metal archway until I was back into the omnipresent centipede. I moved forward, just as all the legs did, until it was my turn to be the bug’s head. I cantered slowly through the arch and walked towards my things. I put my jacket and backpack on and turned around to see my mother and sister and two of the back legs of the bug. As I waited I noticed something in the corner of my eye: toilet paper. I spun a 180 and saw the man, but he wasn’t going through the arch, he was being petted by another person in the Security club. I stared intently as the man stood there with a straight face. I figured the Security club petter was just trying to tickle him, but he wasn’t laughing. The petter did a good job too, I would have been crying at that point.
“That’s not fair,” I whispered to myself. How come he’s the only one that gets to play the tickle game? Just then something pounced on my like a lion on a gazelle and I screamed.
“Did I scare you?” asked my mom with a sinister face.
“No,” I whimpered.
“Alright then my strong, silly boy, let’s head to the gate.”
I followed behind her until I felt comfortable enough to hold her hand again. As we entered the gate-waiting area, we stepped into another centipede and made way toward a tunnel. I entered the tunnel and felt the chills of the cool, brisk morning air kissing my neck. When I entered the plane, the briskness was replaced with a stuffiness that reminded me of the meal room at grandma’s old-people clubhouse.
“Here we are. Marion you get the window, I will be in the middle and Liam can have the aisle,” coaxed my mom. She knew I loved the window, but it was Marion’s turn technically, so I had no choice. I sat down next to my mom and put my backpack under the seat in front of me and buckled my seat belt. With my mom engrossed in the newspaper and my sister snoring like a steamboat, I began to people watch. Lots of people walked past me: old people, short people, fat people, black people, young people, handicapped people. You name it, and they were there, even WANTED people.
The man strode onto the plane with a frown on his face as if the centipede had stalled the slide at school. He began to walk towards an empty aisle seat a few rows ahead of me when a police man stepped on. The police man walked toward the flight attendant and whispered something in her ear. She nodded and walked toward the would-be WANTED mummy. She spoke to him softly enough so that I could not hear him but my mom did. He looked like a puppy who has been hit by their owner, confused and afraid. Then that puppy feeling turned into a Tasmanian devil attitude of sheer rage. The woman spoke to him again and he stood up. He threw his arms in the air as if to say “fine,” and he grabbed his things and walked off the plane with the cop right behind him. Bewildered and utterly confused, I turned to my mother.
“What’s wrong with him, Mommy?”
“Nothing. Nothing is wrong with him. Something is wrong with us.”
I realize now what she meant. That man was taken off the plane for two reasons, he was Arabic and he wore a turban. It was March 2002; it had been six months since 9/11. Our country was scared, frightened, and like always, quick to judgment. We were attacked by extremists, but in the mind of the government and in the mind of the people, we were attacked by every Muslim in the world, and we wanted pay back. For all I know, that man could have caught the next flight or he could have been shipped to Guantanamo Bay.
My mom later told me what the flight attendant had said. I’m paraphrasing but she basically said, “You need to go with the cop at the door. Making a scene will only embarrass you.” That right there is prejudice and hate, clean and clear. When my mom sat me down to talk about it, something clicked in my head. That man was victim of the centipede, because the centipede always follows the head, and a centipede only has one head to follow. If the head walks forward, so will the legs. If the head jumps, so will the legs. If the head hates, so will the legs.