Hospitality and the Inner City

One mild evening this summer I sat on the front steps with a friend, enjoying the warm evening air while drinking a glass of chilled white wine. There was a party at the rental hall next door, and we enjoyed the backdrop of festive mariachi music coming from the open doors.

The rental hall is dark and windowless, which usually drives party-goers and their children out into the parking lot adjacent to my yard where it is cool. As I tossed a ball for Scout to catch, a group of children – boys – wandered over and pressed their noses through our front gate to watch.

The boys chattered with each other in spanish, which I don’t understand, and they continued to point and smile at my dog. Since I didn’t know what they were saying, I simply smiled back at them.

Soon a parent came by to shoo them away, but my friend and I both smiled and waved him off, saying “No, no, it’s fine, we don’t mind.” The parent went off and left the kids with us, and I continued tossing the ball for Scout.

Eventually the boys wandered back to their party, and my friend and I went back to our conversation.

A little while later, I saw the boys creeping along our chain link fence, hiding behind a bush that protruded out into the sidewalk. Suddenly one of the boys ran up to the gate, threw a plastic fork at it, then ran back to his friends as it landed on the sidewalk.

“Hey!” I called after him, coming through the gate and onto the sidewalk. The boys were running away, but stopped and stared at me wild eyed when they heard me call.

Softening my tone, I said “It’s okay.” I waved them back and pointed to the fork. “It’s okay,” I said again. “Don’t throw this at me,” I said, pointing at the fork and shaking my head. I didn’t know if they understood English. “Take it to the trash,” I said, pointing to the fork and waving it away with my hand. “Don’t leave this here, por favor.”

One of the boys walked over with droopy shoulders and got the fork, and I smiled at him so he knew I wasn’t mad. “Gracias,” I said. He and his friends walked away, and I waved cheerfully.

As I sat down next to my friend again, I silently congratulated myself for being gracious to the boy even though he was throwing his trash at me. Wasn’t I wonderfully hospitable to my neighbor even though he was acting rudely? We have, after all, endured beer cans tossed into our yard, broken glass on our sidewalk, and young boys pee’ing through our fence during many of these parties. I even found an abandoned pair of pants in our bushes once.

But as I sat down to write this essay, intending to go in a different direction with it, I’m suddenly struck with a thought – I realize it’s possible the boy was trying to throw a fork for my dog to catch, the way he saw me throwing a ball. And like the detective at the end of The Usual Suspects, I flash back through the montage of clues in my mind with this new realization, reinterpreting the entire scene —

The boys who are mesmerized with a dog who catches balls, the boys who run away suddenly and return sheepishly, the daring boy who is chosen to bear the risk, the unsuccessful toss that was intended to go through the fence, the signs of defeat that I didn’t embrace their efforts.

I am deflated by my tunnel vision, and I want to cry. How arrogant of me! Adorable boys were making friends with my dog, and I shoo’d them off! How confused they must have been with my contradicting actions – first smiling and welcoming them to participate, then scolding them when they tried. I wish I could go back in time and invite them in to play with my dog.

I feel foolish for not realizing their intentions in the moment. Obviously I was dealing with a language barrier, but I still kick myself for not being more observant. I allowed myself to define the moment by my assumptions.

And then I realize, this is Other-ism – racism, classism, cool kids against the nerds, whatever. This is how it starts – judging a person based on what you think you know about them. I made an assumption, and it was the wrong one.

I’d be curious to know about your experience with Other-ism. When have you felt judged? When have you caught yourself judging others?

3 thoughts on “Hospitality and the Inner City”

  1. Yes, I myself have judged and been judged. Actually, in the past years by Don’s extended family and some of it was probably correct assumptions about me, but much was not. I try not to judge these days until I get the facts. Example: my son Eric (#2) used to say I was unfair to judge the illegals, primarily the Mexicans. So I decided to examine how my heart was and how the facts were as far as illegal immigration. Then I got the facts from Numbers USA and other conservative sites as to the crime, cost, and etc of illegal information.
    By the way, in this case of the boy throwing the fork, how do you know you made the wrong assumption? Whether you believed they were doing it from a different motive later on, you still acted on doing the right thing.

  2. When I lived in London, I discovered that I make Other-ness judgements against men from certain countries. I was horrified to realize that I was immediately on my guard and fearful when interacting with men from Pakistan, India, and Middle Eastern countries. Keep in mind, this was several years before 9/11/01 and I had no personal basis for this prejudice. I also realized that I didn’t even know enough to accurately differentiate among these various countries and ethnicities, which in itself is shameful on my part.

    That’s when I began to understand that simply making judgements based on Other-ness doesn’t have to lead to racism or prejudice. I couldn’t explain my knee-jerk reaction, but I could seek to understand it and stop it. And until I could do those things, I could work to recognize it for what it was and put it aside so I could see people as people.

  3. [By the way, in this case of the boy throwing the fork, how do you know you made the wrong assumption? Whether you believed they were doing it from a different motive later on, you still acted on doing the right thing.]

    That’s kind of the point – I DON’T know if I made the right assumption. I’m faced all the time with situations in which I make an assumption based on past experience. Sometimes I think this is wisdom (when a friend continues to gossip about me, it’s time to stop confiding in her). But other times, as in this situation, I can’t use a past experience to judge these little boys.

    I’ve never met these little boys before. It’s not their fault someone else before them threw trash in my yard. In retrospect, I’m 90% sure they were trying to play with my dog, and if that’s the case, I don’t think I handled it the right way. If I could do it over, I think I would have clapped and cheered his effort, then brought my dog out of the yard for them to pet.

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