Culture Wars

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
-Joseph Fort Newton

Not long ago I sat down to have breakfast at one of the numerous Panera restaurants that our city enjoys. Panera started out in Saint Louis. In the beginning, it was named Saint Louis Bread Company. It did well and grew to have a national and international presence.

A Hispanic family sat across from me. After they left, I noticed that their table was a mess: the children had not finished their meals, there were used napkins on the floor, and all of the plates were left in place.

The local Panera culture says that you bus your own table. There is no official policy: this is just what people do. In fact, it is one of the reasons that I frequent the place: I know what is expected of me. Many times, during my travels I have eaten at nice informal restaurants that do not have waste baskets and dirty dish trays in plain view. The last thing that I want to do is break with local tradition, so after I finish my meal I patiently sit in place until I see someone else leave, at which time I follow their lead. Yes, I will wait as long as it takes. MUST. NOT. STAND. OUT.

I have this disturbing tendency to try to fix the world, even if whatever needs to be fixed is clearly not within my purview. I want everyone to get along. I fear violence and despise intolerance. So the first thing that occurs to me is that whomever has to clean this table, even if this is his or her job, will feel certain animosity towards the people who just left in particular, and all Hispanics in general. I begin to experience guilt, which I understand is rather silly, since I do not know these people, and even if they are Hispanic I probably have more in common with a Pakistani physician than I have with them.

But this is what a diversity of cultures does to us. If I am traveling far from home and overhear someone speak Spanish, I am overtaken by warm fuzzies. These people that I am listening to could be planning a bank robbery, yet I instantly become attached to them. If I saw them walking down the street in my hometown, I would not bother to try to listen to what they were saying.

I walked out of the store, still feeling a bit guilty, when I remembered my friend Johnny and his wife.  They came from a Central American country: a place where a few families control a vast share of the money and the power. I do not know for sure, but I think that Johnny belonged to one of these very exclusive clubs. His manners were impeccable. He always dressed straight out of GQ and Esquire. When he spoke to me, he looked at me right in the eyes: it seemed as if nothing mattered to him more than listening to what I had to say.  Our social group consisted of young professionals right out of training. We had more loans than money. Johnny could afford to live in a large house, located in the exclusive neighborhood, with thousands of square feet of living space, manicured landscaping, and a large pool in the back yard. When you came to my house for dinner you wore jeans and ate hamburgers. At Johnny’s it was made clear that you had to wear a jacket and tie, and there was always a butler, and a cook, and two or three servers to bring us several exquisite courses.

Once he asked me to come on a Sunday afternoon for a pool party.

Should I wear jacket and tie?

He was not amused.  I learned that when you dealt with him there was some stuff that you did not make fun of. I apologized.

One day Johnny called me. His wife had developed pain in her right elbow. Could I see her?

I called her immediately. She showed up that afternoon. To my relief, I could not see anything terribly wrong. Most likely she had a tendinitis, which is often the result of overuse of a certain muscle.

I do not think that you are sick. I think it is an injury. An injection of cortisone and some exercises will help.

She wanted to know how she could have hurt herself.

Any overexertion. Dusting; pushing a vacuum…

She looked at me with a combination of anger and contempt.

“I don’t do those things!  The “chicas” take care of that.”

The literal meaning of “chicas” in Spanish is “little girls,” but in certain families this is what they call the domestic help. 

Her eyes would not stop hating me. With some alarm I began to realize that she would have been less upset if I had accused her of being a thief, or a prostitute.

I am sorry: I should have known not to say that. Maybe you slept on the same side for too long, or you need to change your technique when you use your backhand at tennis.

I whispered an awkward good-bye and ushered her out of the office. 

She never came back to see me, and I did not ask how she was doing when we came for the next dinner.  I was a huge source of referrals for Johnny’s practice: he was that good a doctor. We had fun when we were together. I think that he made it clear to his wife that she had to learn to accept me as a friend, if not as a doctor.

Culture. Who knew that someone could be offended, deeply so, if their doctor assumed that they did a tiny bit of manual labor? Maybe the Hispanics at Panera grew up in an atmosphere where you just did not bus your own table; maybe there were negative connotations associated with this act. 

What do we do? I am told that in ancient Rome it was OK to deposit an unwanted newborn child in the dung pile: OK to let the baby starve. If you wanted a cheap slave, you could wait until someone abandoned a baby; you could nurture and rear him or her, and you could claim him or her as property forever.

At what point did someone in Rome feel that it was no longer moral to abandon babies? Who was the first one to complain? Was the transition gradual or abrupt? Was the first person who suggested that this custom was cruel and inhuman persecuted?

I wish that I knew. The Hispanic children at Panera were well-behaved. The parents clearly took good care of them and loved them. So what if they did not bus the table?

Every time that I see a young man walking about with his pants so low that I can see his rear end I want to hold him down and give him a lesson on class. On the other hand, maybe he is a good student who loves his parents. There are the obese ladies in their late fifties who go grocery shopping in short shorts, halter tops, and no underwear. Not anything that I would teach my daughters to do, but maybe their families think that they look great.

We could go on and on, talking about everyone and anyone who is not like us… It seems as if each segment of society thinks that they have the correct amount of tolerance, and they do not hesitate to let everyone else know that they are in the right.

Like Diogenes with his lamp, I say: I am looking for an honest person who is not sure how much is too much; how far is too far. I only know that I do not know.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Rosemary Knittel

    Enjoy reading your posts – don’t comment often, but truly appreciate your writing. Thank you friend of so long ago!

  2. Betty Townsend

    I too, would be quick to condem that family without considering their culture. I know too,know that I don’t know. so often i don’t think about other cultures because I only think about my way of doing something. I have to deal with no longer trying to be perfect. I grew up hearing critizem of others and the idea was for me to understand that I was to be perfect. So I have to always be careful of me crtizing others.

  3. donnyraybob

    I had the great fortune to grow up in a working class Chicago neighborhood with a mix of Irish, Italian, and Polish with a sprinkling of Puerto Ricans. Me, being of the only semi-Asian-looking (I’m Hawaiian and Irish) family in the neighborhood, took a fair amount of verbal, and occasionally physical, abuse. But so did the others. The micks, the pollacks, the waps, spics, and me the chink, we all took our share if it. But we didn’t “hate.” We made fun, we joked, we poked fun at one another for our weird ways or different looks. Sure, it hurt sometime. But we learned to see past those differences, to welcome the new while we also held fast to our unique cultural and ethnic histories.

    If back then we had to endure the endless, ratings-driven, 24/7/365 news cycle, the media would have us believing we were on our way to a multi-cultural civil war. We weren’t then, and we aren’t now. Fringe elements of all persuasions will continue to exist as they always have. But they don’t represent me or the people from my Chicago neighborhood. They represent nothing. Yet the media would have you think they’re a “movement.” That they are what’s wrong with all of Americans and all of America. In fact, they couldn’t be more wrong. Our cultural differences are what made America great and what keeps us great. We won’t always agree. We won’t always understand. But we will and should forever remember that our differences are worthy of celebration and remembrance. American exceptionalism was forged from the cultural goo we’ve become. Embrace it!