One night in Florida
As a Canadian travelling in the U.S., I had to learn to leave my assumptions at the border, Jean Blacklock writes
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It's been over a year since the American election and what we hear in Canada coming from our old neighbour to the South is a thrum of discontent, not really about any single issue (they change so fast), more like baleful glaring across a great divide on everything.
Some days, we read news from the United States and congratulate ourselves on our tolerance and inclusiveness, on our Prime Minister's socks, on our acting in a way that the States doesn't seem to know how to do.
But mostly, it feels as if we've lost something that we didn't know we liked. We miss the American patriotism that seemed to rise above whatever Americans argued about. We miss the stature the U.S. President had around the world, an ability that crossed party lines to respond with dignity when bad things happened. Now, disagreements in the United States seem intractable, personal and political in the worst ways, it's not just politicians hurling rhetoric, even late-night comedians have lost their sense of humour.
Recently, my husband, Andrew, and I were in Florida. We noticed during friendly idle chats in line at Starbucks or in hotel elevators that mentioning we were Canadian prompted a sheepish grin and a comment such as, "Canada, yeah, it's a good place … especially now." The last two words were often a sigh. We'd feel awkward, wanting to say the right thing, to make them feel better.
But in division there are two sides. We knew that other Americans we bumped into thought differently about our nationality, maybe even pitying us for our health-care system with our hospital patients apparently lined up out the door.
But one night in Naples, while strolling the bucolic town centre after dinner, I realized that I've also been making my fair share of assumptions. Naples is a popular tourist stop on the Gulf of Mexico, the buildings are low rise and charming, painted pastel shades of pink and green and home to trendy restaurants and chic fashion. The men wear expensive leather sandals and the women, pricey Lilly Pulitzer dresses. Even the kids dress up.
It was a muggy night and as we walked slowly in the humid heat, we heard the unexpected rumble of a missing muffler. We turned to see a black monster truck roll toward us on jacked up wheels, its absent muffler clearly a chosen design element. As the half ton slowly drove by, we saw a sign in the back window that simply read, "TRUMP" in bold black letters.
We laughed. "Yep," one of us said, "of course, a Trump supporter!"
Then we noticed an elderly man, his plaid shirt tightly tucked into tailored, waist-high pants, step firmly into the street to stop the truck. Parked behind him was an old Cadillac, perfectly maintained and shiny clean.
His purposeful stride into the street struck us a bad idea. First, the truck's cab was so high I wasn't sure the young man sporting a backward ball cap could even see him. Secondly, the older gentleman did not look like someone the young driver would stop for anyway. (To be fair, the truck-driving Trump supporter didn't look like someone the older man would have much time for either.)
We stopped to watch the drama unfold. To my surprise, the truck stopped, its passenger window came down, words were exchanged and a moment later, the big black truck was noisily backing up behind the car. The young driver jumped out, his ball cap now turned around the other way (interesting he would care, I thought), and went around to pull out jumper cables. Within a couple of minutes, the truck and car were joined and the car engine started, all was well.
But then, the old man scrambled out of his car and hurried back to the truck driver, not to shake hands, but to draw him close into an embrace that the young man warmly returned. They talked for a few minutes before the driver was back in the truck, easing the giant half ton back into the street.
My husband and I stood there for a few seconds, silent. Something felt odd about this everyday occurrence and I wondered why. People boost strangers' cars all the time, so there was nothing unusual there; the difference was my judgment before it all played out before us.
Logically, I know Americans are the same people they've always been: Some are overbearing, but most are warm and friendly in a way unique to their nationality; they can be opinionated and blithely focused on their own country but at other times, passionate behind causes around the world – in other words, they're wonderful and flawed humans like us all.
But an unconscious bias clicked into place the moment I saw that Trump sign. Knowing the young man's politics, I smugly decided he'd drive by an elderly stranger needing a hand. I did exactly what I have criticized Americans for doing: jumbling together the political and the personal and forgetting there is so much nuance to every person alive.
The scene that played out in front of us that night in Naples felt like an old-fashioned fable, with a point to make in its simplicity. It's true that the United States seems chaotic right now, but the everyday decency of millions of its citizens hasn't changed just because of reports from the endless news feed on our phones. Pies are still being baked for new neighbours without thought to political stripe, near-strangers will be invited to join American Thanksgiving tables because that's just what they do, and car batteries will be boosted by those with a charged battery to share.
I was reminded of the quote by Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi, "Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there."
Jean Blacklock lives in Toronto.