Dear Neighbors With the Trump/Pence Sign

15 October, 2020
Al-Ṭarīqah (The path), 2014 by artist Sama Alshaibi
Al‑Ṭarīqah (The Path), 2014, by artist Sama Alshaibi.

 

Laila Halaby

 

Dear Neigh­bors with the Trump/Pence sign,

You prob­a­bly don’t remem­ber this, but when my younger son was four or five, he dressed up as a drag­on for Hal­loween.  As we were walk­ing up the path to your front door, one of his wings fell off.  You came out with a bowl of can­dy and see­ing my son’s dis­tress, went right back inside.  When you reap­peared, you had safe­ty pins and you both spent the next few min­utes reat­tach­ing my son’s poofy green wings to his green fel­ty cos­tume.  While we live a block apart, I rarely see you out­side and we have nev­er had occa­sion to chat.  Still, I’ve always felt kind­ly and the tini­est bit pro­tec­tive of you guys as a result of that interaction.

My younger son is now 21.  He has brown skin and tat­toos and curly hair and a fade and some­times walks shirt­less in this neigh­bor­hood he grew up in.  Some­times he comes home and says that he’s greet­ed peo­ple and they’ve not replied.  (Was this you?)  Like so many young peo­ple of col­or these days, he wor­ries about poten­tial Karens and mis­in­for­ma­tion and police, all sit­u­a­tions made mas­sive­ly worse by our cur­rent pres­i­dent and by those who sup­port him. 

Trump_Pence_2020.jpg

It hit me (like a suck­er punch) that if I were tak­ing my sons trick-or-treat­ing now and we saw your sign, we would walk on by.

I like to think that had I been faced with such a sharp jux­ta­po­si­tion of kind­ness and hatred those many years ago, Dear Neigh­bors, that I would have returned alone to your house, intro­duced myself, and told you a lit­tle about my fam­i­ly.  I would prob­a­bly have shared all man­ner of per­son­al details and in so doing I would have found and point­ed out areas where we con­nect­ed.  I am good at that, at find­ing the over­lap among diverse peo­ple. But I am tired, Dear Neigh­bors, so I am going to tell you about the places where we don’t overlap. 

We had moved from Los Ange­les into this very white, uni­ver­si­ty-adja­cent neigh­bor­hood, in 2000, when our boys were one and almost four.  The ele­men­tary school around the cor­ner had the high­est scores for pub­lic school in the city and my mum lived a cou­ple of miles away. 

Palms, where we had lived in LA, was free­way-close and live­ly with stu­dents and immi­grants and young fam­i­lies.  We lived in an apart­ment build­ing sur­round­ed by oth­er apart­ment build­ings.  The tiny park where Snoop Dog and his body­guard shot and killed some­one was a cou­ple of blocks from us.  The school clos­est to us was in the 20-some­thingth percentile. 

On the sec­ond day we were here, a neigh­bor came up to my then-hus­band and intro­duced him­self.  The neigh­bor asked my then-hus­band where he was from and when he answered Pales­tine the neigh­bor asked how it felt to be “from a coun­try that does­n’t exist.”

Recent­ly I ran into this neigh­bor and after we had said good morn­ing he mused aloud “I won­der why we’ve nev­er connected.”

Hmmm.

Don’t wor­ry, Dear Neigh­bors, this is not going to be a griev­ance letter. 

A day or two after 9/11, a Jew­ish neigh­bor I had nev­er spo­ken to before came up to me, intro­duced him­self, and said that if we need­ed any­thing, he and his fam­i­ly were there for us.  (We remained friend­ly until they moved away some years ago.)

Because we are close to the uni­ver­si­ty, peo­ple often park on our street and ride their bikes or walk to cam­pus.  There is a man who owns a rental house down the street and appears from time to time to do yard­work.  He is large, often has a beer in hand, and has mil­i­tary stick­ers on his truck. 

One morn­ing, ear­ly on in our liv­ing here, when we came home and found cars parked in front of our house, I parked up the street in the shade of his orange trees (now deceased), a nice respite as it was late spring and the days had got­ten bright and warm. 

My younger son, who was three, and I walked out of the house a short while lat­er to find him writ­ing down the license plate of a truck in front of our house.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No, it belongs to his gar­den­er,” I said, point­ing toward my next door neigh­bor’s house.

“You parked in front of my house,” he said.  His face was a rud­dy pink.

“I parked on the street where there was space,” I replied.

“You have a space behind your house where you could park,” he said.

“It is not your busi­ness to tell me where to park,” I replied.

He point­ed at my trees that I had only recent­ly real­ized had been off the irri­ga­tion and looked sparse, as though they were dying (they are still alive).  “You are a ter­ri­ble neigh­bor,” he said.  “Not tak­ing care of your trees.”

“Speak­ing of ter­ri­ble neigh­bors,” I replied, my younger son’s tiny hand in mine.  “We have rid­den past you on bikes so many times and said good morn­ing and you nev­er respond.”

“I did­n’t know you spoke Eng­lish,” he said.

We went back and forth a bit as we both walked in the direc­tion of our car.  “Go to hell,” was his final com­ment to me.

In the inter­ven­ing years I have seen the bed of his truck filled with emp­ty beer cans.  I have seen him stand and stare at us with­out say­ing hello. 

In 2015, a man in North Car­oli­na killed three young Arab Amer­i­cans, sup­pos­ed­ly over park­ing issues. 

Col­lege boys rent­ed the house across the street from ours and hung a Con­fed­er­ate flag so that it cov­ered a wall of their liv­ing room and was vis­i­ble from my front porch. 

Most­ly though, we have love­ly neigh­bors, peo­ple who are friends and who have had our backs even at the worst of times.  The love­ly neigh­bors far out­weigh the prob­lem­at­ic ones and for all the years we have been here, I have most­ly tuned out those few unpleas­ant moments.

The thing of it is, Dear Neigh­bors with the Trump/Pence sign, you may be choos­ing your can­di­date based on your port­fo­lio, but your sup­port is an acces­so­ry to violence.

Your sup­port sews doubt among peo­ple who have lived side by side for years.

Your sup­port enables sit­u­a­tions in which Con­fed­er­ate flags lead to murder.

Your sup­port pro­pels angry men to act on their per­ceived grievances.

Nuance van­ish­es with your sign.  Things become black and white.  White and Other.

All those years ago, when life felt eas­i­er, I would have want­ed to hear your sto­ry too.

I don’t anymore. 

If now were then, I would have believed that if I went to your house and sat with you, that you would change your mind and not vote for Trump, that you would rec­og­nize how much you are actu­al­ly los­ing by sup­port­ing this per­pet­u­a­tor of vio­lence and racism and misog­y­ny and ignorance.

I am not so naïve anymore.

I do want to ask you, Dear Neigh­bors who showed kind­ness to a brown fam­i­ly one long-ago Hal­loween, what changed?  How did you go from that kind old­er cou­ple with safe­ty pins and time to save a lit­tle boy’s Hal­loween, to peo­ple who can’t see how much they are push­ing away, and not just their neigh­bors of color? 

And I won­der, is it worth it?

 

Arab AmericansPenceTrump

Laila Halaby was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Jordanian father and an American mother.  She is the author of two novels, West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award) and Once in a Promised Land. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her second collection of poetry, due out April 2022 from 2Leaf Press, why an author writes to a guy holding a fish [sic], is a story in verse chronicling the misadventures of a recently divorced woman dating in America.

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