Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Living like the other half

Smug self-satisfaction pops up at the oddest times. For me, it usually rears its adorable head when I walk into the seedy side of town. It's not that I feel superior (though of course I do; I'm from southern California after all), but rather that I "know" that I'm supposed to be sympathetic and non-judgemental and I'm "oh so able" to muster the appropriate expression on my face, to say the things that put the less fortunate at ease, to "parlez the langue" with the best of 'em.

So when we went shopping for a Toyota Corolla from an ad, saw that it cost only $750 and had less than 150K miles, it was obvious we'd be entering that world of "lower class" citizenry. Time to shine up the compassionate face.

The car is a wreck on wheels with a strong engine, salvaged title and odometer discrepancy. It runs. It really does. Engine is strong. I think I've convinced myself. The owner of the vehicle had had it in his possession a week. Auction. Okay.

So we agreed to the price, took out money hand over fist from the ATM that only lets you pull out a couple hundred at a time. The owner called his buddy who can notorize the transfer of title on a Sunday.

Yes, the buddy was Muslim. I noticed the blue prayer beads on the wall immediately. God's 99 names hung in a poster frame. Arabic script in gold leaned over our heads above a doorway. The little office had dirty tile floors, the smell of stale smoke and state-of-the-art computers. Two teenaged boys (nice looking) clicked around on a mouse and one wore a t-shirt with "Les Miserables" featured on the back.

The notary smoked like a chimney and leered at me the whole time. His mother in long black robe and white head covering sat quietly as Jon and I dazzled them with our rusty Arabic. That's when it hit. The smug thing.

I felt like "I knew..." What did I know? I don't know, but it's that feeling that takes over when I'm around dirty floors and foreign accents. I get this little "high" and then I have to stop and think: WTF? This is this person's shabby little life, not some stop for the over-privileged on a "tour of the world." He works in this squalor... I glanced through the windows - steel bar gates with points on top, abandonned buildings across the street, desolation. Fugly! Poor slob trying to make a go of it in America.

I came back into the room mentally when the notary with the mustache and expanding paunch rightly guessed that our Arabic was from Morocco and launched the following description of his most recent visit to our adopted country.
Morocco is fantastic. The food is wonderful.

I am whore.

I go to Morocco because I am told there are women there. So I go.

But I never touch a woman. I never touch any woman the whole time I'm there.

And I have great time, anyway.

Great country.

Did he say "whore"? Is he staring at my boobs? Am I talking too much? That swooping feeling of "Shit, those damned Muslim men" overtakes my previous compassionate bonhomie. Gawd they always do that leering thing.

I glanced at his mother who understood not a word.

The title signed (wherein Jon was asked if he wanted a lower price put on the title and Jon said, "No" to the shock of the swarthy businessman), we left the stuffy room.

As we did, I noticed Mr. Letch's teenaged sons climb into, what was it?, a brand new BMW! They u-turned the sleek sedan right in front of our new little wreck bought for our over-privileged teenaged daughter.

As he turned, I saw his face. I recognized that smug expression right away.

3 comments:

SusansPlace said...

Oh my. Good piece of writing, there. What an experience!

Susan :-)

Matt said...

I've got to echo Susan -- great piece. And it's sometimes surprising to me how my own sense of smugness (which I thought was only found in folks native to the Deep South;-) can be jarred loose in the blink of an eye.

Matt

seekinghim said...

Awesome post! My first visit here...I'll be back. I'm afraid that I could completely relate to the whole "smug satisfaction" thing.

This is my favorite part: "I felt like "I knew..." What did I know? I don't know, but it's that feeling that takes over when I'm around dirty floors and foreign accents. I get this little "high" and then I have to stop and think: WTF? This is this person's shabby little life, not some stop for the over-privileged on a "tour of the world."