Saturday morning before Independence Day I stopped at the post office by Monkey Junction to pick up a certified letter. Monkey Junction’s post office is a popular place on weekend mornings. Throughout winter holidays, the little line can get long, and the people slightly harried and impatient, but not dangerously so. This time of year, genial, sometimes downright friendly folks chat while they pick up or mail packages. Today folks were quiet, with a touch of tension.
Two 60-ish women stood silently directly in front of a silent large pot-bellied man with a small package and small child. Armed only with her adorable smile, the child explored every greeting card she could get her hands on at the rack, just inside the entrance. A part of me couldn’t wait until she discovered the bubble wrap. The inquisitive girl wandered, and I listened to the only source of chatter: a woman talking about a family matter in large gestures to a small, fit man in camo shorts.
My eye drifted nonchalantly from the child to the man, back to the child, then the man. I’m not a scout sniper. I don’t instantly scan every room I enter for target and egress opportunities. It takes me a while. Einstein reportedly said, “The most important choice we make is whether we believe the universe is a friendly or hostile place.” I’m cognizant of actual threat but do tend to believe the universe is basically friendly.
The woman chatting appeared to be in her mid twenties, slightly hung over, and piqued about something. The man was short, solidly built, neither stocky nor sinewy, wearing a form-fitting olive drab T-shirt, emblazoned with an eagle holding the “Second Amendment.” Clean cut—couldn’t have been more than 26.
My eyes eventually found his sidearm. I’m pretty sure it was a Beretta Px4. I’m no weapons expert, but I pass enough churches in North Carolina on my long Sunday jogs to tell a Smith & Wesson from a Glock from a Beretta. For some reason freewill Baptists prefer imports, while Catholics buy ‘Merican. Go figure.
And, yes, the gentleman was white. That goes without saying. Even in North Carolina persons of color, such as Reverend Barber, tend to advocate for social justice and the rest of the Constitution, leaving white males to support the “Sacred Second.”
I thought of a slew of things to say: “I am Groot. Which Guardian of the Galaxy are you?” Or “Nice piece—but could you shoot a man on 5th Avenue and not lose votes?” Or “Nothing says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ like packing a pistol at the post office on a sunny Saturday morning.”
I declined to exercise my First Amendment right partly because of Einstein and partly because of empathy and compassion. This fine 26-year-old American easily could have been me—had I been a white kid playing little league in Wilmington when the Twin Towers went down; watched 15 years of the “War on Terror” on FOX and economy nearly collapse; been taught at my church the black president is a Muslim, so we must be nearing to the end of days; was introduced to our current president on reality TV; heard decades of NRA fear-mongering ads (their new one is a beauty—”Closed fist of truth.” Seriously?); done most everything I was told and still see few realistic prospects to turn the American dream into a middle-class reality. I might not choose to see the universe as particularly friendly, either.
After leaving the post office, I drove to Old Books on Front, chatted with friends about a project in progress, and picked up a James Baldwin book to read for the Fourth of July. It’s hard not to weep about America when reading James, but the tears water my growth.
I described my morning to friends, including the towel-snap snark I kept in my head. A young woman I’d seen play with Pineapple-Shaped Lamps said, “You made the right choice, a grown-up choice.” Her comment made my morning. Making grown-up choices isn’t easy. Maturity, empathy, compassion, and Einstein aren’t easy.
I drove home, armed with a smile and a great book. The words of a wizened battle-weary Vietnam veteran also helped guide me home. He shook his head, “I guess I been fighting my whole life. But life has never been fighting me. Wish I figured that out sooner.”
I wish my young patriot well.