it's early 70's... and here betty and liz and i are in some white
tower below 14th street on the east side of new york city
ordering a quick lunch before walking across the street to see a
saturday matinee children's live show.
we're at a table in the back
and the chrome and white interior is populated with what must
be a 'normal' cross-section of the widest diversity. there are
two young students who have left their bicycles padlocked with
a chain to the parking meter outside the window.
there's this guy sitting at the counter...hasn't shaved for a couple
of days...got a top coat with frayed cuffs and a couple of buttons
missing... he's ordering a second piece of apple pie alamode and
you can see the waitress is beginning to suspect he's not able to
even pay for the first one.
"Uh...just a minute", she says and walks over to the owner behind the cash register
and whispers something. the both of them come over as the man in the topcoat
lifts the last forkfull of his previous serving. "sir...", begins the owner.
"yeah?", the man stops before
putting the fork in his mouth.
"if you don't mind, i'd like you to pay for your first order before she brings
you your second piece..." the customer lowers the fork. the owner is trying to
walk the thin line between courteous and suspicious.
"...and what's wrong with ordering a second piece of pie? that's what business
you're in, right? selling food, right? and i'm buying food, right?"
"do you have the money to pay for what you've already eaten?" the manager's voice
"you're asking me if i have money?", the customer is too quickly indignant. "Before
i'm through eating? i don't see you asking anybody else here if they've got money
to pay for their food?!"
Betty and I look at each other. Liz is oblivious to the drama taking
place. But there is some other kind of signal this man is giving
off...what is it?
"look," says the owner, "just show me you've got some money to pay for this food"
"money?", the man in the topcoat asks, "you want to see money?"
"i just want to know that you can pay for what you've ordered", repeats
the owner. the waitress has got a grim set to her mouth. either way this argument
turns out, she's kissed a tip goodbye.
"you want to see money...", the customer repeats and suddenly i realize why i
get this feeling he's overacting. it's been a setup! he's been deliberately
leading these folks on. this has been calculated to generate suspicion so that
he could 'make a statement' about his worth.
so. i am not surprised when he reaches in the oversize pocket of
his topcoat and pulls out a wad of bills rolled around each other
and as big in diameter as a can of beans. he throws a five dollar
bill on the counter.
"there!", he says pushing himself off the stool. "you want more?!" he asks rhetorically. "there!",
he says again throwing another five on the counter. "...and you can keep your
he shoves the wad back into his pocket, turns up his collar dramatically,
and almost as though he's expecting applause, strides for the door.
the owner doesn't bat an eye, 'picks up one of the five dollar bills,
and walks to the cash register. only by watching carefully do i see
that his hand is trembling. the waitress is wiping some crumbs away
(after pocketing the other five dollars i suppose).
we all pick strange ways to establish self worth, i comment to myself...but
hey, then again, i figure...this is new york city.
gradually betty, liz and i and the other patrons return our attention
to our own food.
but not for long.
in through the door has lurched a belligerent, foul-languaged, black
man. the left sleeve of his checkered shirt is ripped at the shoulder
seam, and he is ready to punch out anybody here. the level of conversation
in the restaurant is gradually overcome by the shouting at the cash
register. I look up.
"Get out!" the owner is shouting.
"Lay one hand on me and I'll trash this place" the slightly weaving black man
with the glazed eyes growls back.
several customers hurriedly finish paying their bill and slip out
the front door. several others move to tables nearer the rear.
i've got no idea what the argument is about; i can only feel the
tension - the potential for violence - and like the other people
in the diner, betty and liz and i are hoping that by ignoring it,
the situation will remedy itself.
suddenly the owner reaches behind the counter and pulls out a broom
handle. "Get out of here, I said", he repeats, waving the stick in
"Yeah, c'mon...c'mon", the black man pulls his hands out of the coat and balls
them into fists.
i get up from my chair in the rear of the restaurant. "where are
you going?" asks betty startled by my move. "i've got to stop
this", i say. "it's none of our business", she puts her hand on my
arm. "i know", i reply as i walk to the front. i've absolutely no
thought of the consequences. But I have this total conviction that
i'm the only one that can change the situation.
Like a boxer, the man revolves his arms slowly in front of him and
shuffles backwards into an open area of the restaurant. As I reach
the counter he is staring daggers at the owner who is telling the
girl to watch the register for a minute.
"C'mon...", i murmur to the angry man with the clenched fists
"Huh?", he looks over at me,
distracted for the moment.
I gently place my hand on his shoulder and motioning with my head
to the front door say, "you don't want to get into this..."
amazingly, the man lowers his arms and with but the gentlest pressure
on his shoulder proceeds me out the glass door.
"He shouldn'ta said that to me...", my new acquaintence mumbles as we reach the
street and approach the trash basket on the corner.
"I know...", I reply, sensing his hurt and frustration, "but I'm sure he didn't
mean it personally. He was probably just having a bad day."
"But he shouldn't talked to me that way...", he shook his head sadly. "It isn't
"It isn't right. Sometimes people just have days like that, you know what I mean?",
I advised. I could see that he was much calmer now and I placed my hand on his
"Yeah...", the man's voice trailed off and though still obviously bothered, he
straightened himself somewhat and turned his head to watch the traffic flow down
"You okay now?", I asked after a moment.
"Yeah...", he said absently. "Yeah, I'm okay."
"Well...God bless you", I said and re-entered the restaurant.
(do you remember that part in the starwars film where alec guinness
playing the role of obie kanobie says to the empire guards "these
are not the men you are looking for...", waves his hands and for
some inexplicable reason they are allowed to pass through the checkpoint?
reality overwhelmed by the Force? years later when i see this scene,
i cannot but help recall the smoothness with which i have been guided
or have guided others through potentially dangerous situations by
a calm certainty. there are many reports of refugees escaping detection
and certain torture or death, bibles being allowed into political
prisons or across country's borders all under this same umbrella
"What did you say to him?", Betty asks as I return to the table.
"I just kept telling him that everything was alright and that it wasn't
his fault and that he didn't really want to start anything", I answered in what
felt like somebody else's voice.
"And that's all?!", asked Betty surprised.
"That's all", I replied, sitting down to finish my pie alamode.
and now, sitting in a motel room some twenty years later, i look
at the words that reveal this little experience and think about
it's contrast to the 'peacemakers' that are portrayed on television
and in the movies. 'where's the bravery here'? my carnal nature inquires.
'big deal' adventure, eh? an excerpt from an Indiana Jones movie
looms bigger than life in my memory and i am embarrassed by the modesty
of this 'saving action'. gads...must prevention of violence always
take on such a modest cloak? 'repay not evil with evil but with love',
the scripture encourages and i am reminded that the blessing for
peacemakers is to be called a son of God.