Regular People, Like Us

* Inspired by a conversation with a stranger named Trey (he didn’t want to be photographed).  When I asked him who he feared the most on the streets he said, “You.  Because I don’t trust you, that you are who you say you are, who you show yourself to be.”

“Grayson had a way of jumping into a subject without warning; it was during Maniac’s dessert that he abruptly said, “Them black people, they eat mashed potatoes, too?”

Maniac thought he was kidding, then realized he wasn’t.  “Sure.  Mrs. Beale used to have potatoes a lot, mashed and every other way.”

“Mrs. Who?”

“Mrs. Beale.  Do you know the Beales?  Of seven twenty-eight Sycamore Street?”

The old man shook his head.

“Well, they were my family.  I had a mother and father and a little brother and sister and a sister my age and a dog.  My own room too.”

Grayson stared out the diner window, as if digesting this information.  “How ‘bout meatloaf?”


“They eat that too?”

“Sure, meatloaf too.  And peas.  And corn. You name it.”


Maniac beamed, “Oh, man!  You kidding?  Mrs. Beale makes the best cakes in the world.”

Grayson’s eyes narrowed.  “Toothbrushes?  They use them?”

Maniac fought not to smile.  “Absolutely.  We all had our toothbrushes hanging in the bathroom.”

“I know that,” said Grayson, impatient, “but is their the same?  As ours?”

“No difference that I could see.”

“You didn’t drink out the same glass.”

“Absolutely, we did.”

This information seemed to shock the old man.

Maniac laid down his fork, “Grayson, they’re just regular people, like us.”

“I was never in a house of theirs.”

“Well, I’m telling you, it’s the same.  There’s bathtubs and refrigerators and rugs and TVs and beds . . .”

Grayson was wagging his head.  “Ain’t that somethin’ . . . ain’t that somethin’ . . .” – Maniac Magee

More than I’d like to admit, I am Grayson.

For most of my life I wouldn’t have thought so, but last week, while taking a class in Honolulu, I discovered otherwise.  I discovered that I use general stereotypes to compartmentalize people and that, instead of being curious of others, I am, at the very least, intimidated, and at my very worst, fearful.  Especially of those who are different.

And its wrong.

Billy D Godwin, a homeless man, was the first to reveal my narrow-mindedness when we
struck up a conversation about art.  Billy D was an artist who studied at the University of California Berkley, married young, and lived a normal American life.  Until his daughter was murdered by her boyfriend.  “I came to Hawaii ten years ago so I could heal,” he said, “and to pray.  I pray for [her boyfriend] everyday.”

Grayson never pictured black families eating mashed potatoes and I never envisioned a bearded homeless man as an artist, a husband, and as a heart broken father.

It’s easier to be ignorant than it is to be curious.

I stopped asking questions (or never started) and lost the ability to relate, to see more than what I saw, and to empathize.

And it can happen so quickly.

Without noticing, I can no longer see those of another religion, another race, or another other as anything complex.  To easily, they become simple, explainable, and all inclusive.

All blacks or whites are . . .

All Muslims or Christians are . . .

All immigrants or illegals are . . .

And all women are . . .

In general, women intimidate me, especially confident women, and I’m really not sure why.  But sexually confident women (or what I perceive as sexually confident) terrify me.  I assume all they want is beer, sex, and simple conversations, and I assume that if I talk with them, they think my simple conversation is an attempt at a few beers before sex.

I’ve never envisioned them brushing their teeth or eating meatloaf because my story of them is too simple, and easily explained.

Until I met Beau and Mia.  Like Grayson, I knew very little and assumed just as much.  I never envisioned that they do eat and probably hate meatloaf because when I met them, they were on the hunt for a vegan restaurant.  Mia had just returned from a trip to India and they were wanting to catch up.

Imagine that.

“Brian had a way of jumping into a subject without warning, “Them barely clothed women, they eat vegetables and fruit, too?”

Maniac thought I was kidding, then realized I wasn’t.  “Sure, bread too.  And chips.  And ice cream. You name it.”

My eyes narrowed.  “Toothbrushes?  They use them?”

Maniac fought not to smile.  “Absolutely.”

And you know who else uses toothbrushes?  The LGBT community.

Outside of the black vs white story, one of the more polarizing Single Stories in America is that of the LGBT community, and there doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room on this issue.  One is either tolerant or not, and both sides have minimized the other; neither side knows if the other eats meatloaf or not.  At least, that’s how it’s portrayed.

“People fear me because they fear themselves,” Taisha said, shifting from side to side on her two inch high heals. Taisha was born a male but has chosen to be female and she knows that her presence offends people.  “They see me walk with my shoulders back and my head held high and I challenge them.”

They.  Them.

Her vs them.

They vs her.

This language is everywhere: them and us, and it continually draws of lines of differences, reinforces how we are dissimilar, and consequently, destroys Us.

An attitude of tolerance doesn’t bring Us together; it only asks us to stomach and endure those who are different, not talk to and get to know.  Not empathize or enjoy.  Just tolerate.

Curiosity doesn’t tolerate, it pursues, it chases, and it crosses the lines that so easily divide us.

Maniac laid down his fork, “Brian, they’re just regular people, like us.”

“I was never in a house of theirs.”

“Well, I’m telling you, it’s the same.  There’s bathtubs and refrigerators and rugs and TVs and beds . . .”

Alvin is no stranger to people avoiding lines, even imaginary ones, “If you watch, there is a giant circle around me that people won’t walk into.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?” I asked.

“Of course, nobody likes being disliked.  But I’m more afraid of not doing anything, of them not hearing the message than I am of their judgments.  This is Truth, and I have to get it out.”

Although I was raised in a conservative Christian household, I have always avoided the street evangelist.  They embarrass me to the core and go against almost everything I believe when it comes to evangelism.  I would probably have more in common with a sexually confident woman or transsexual man (is that correct? I’m not sure) than I ever would with a street evangelist, especially one that preaches a loving gospel of Turn or Burn.

But Alvin probably eats meatloaf, perhaps even cake, and most definitely he brushes his teeth . . . with a toothbrush.  He has a past which he regrets, a conviction of Truth, and an idea of how best to spread it to as many people as possible.  He lives by conviction, and he does his best not to waver from it.

In a time where “authentic living” is esteemed above most everything, it would seem Alvin deserves a seat at the top, right next to Taisha.  An ironic duo with more in common than they might initially think.

Then, what if Beau and Mia joined them, then Billy D, and then, you, and then me.  Imagine the stories we could share, the sympathies, the joys.

Stories matter. They can dispossess and malign, but they can also empower and humanize; they can repair broken dignity and breakdown simple labels.  Shallow labels.  Unfair labels.

But first, I must be curious enough to hear the stories, and to listen.

Like Maniac.

And, like Grayson,  “Ain’t that somethin’ . . . ain’t that somethin’.”