“I absolutely insist that you accept this 5-dollar bill,” said the slightly hunched, distinguished-looking Caucasian man in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. He held my big brown hand firmly open with the fingers of one hand while placing a five-dollar bill in it with the other. He looked into my eyes gently but firmly.
I looked down at Abraham Lincoln on the currency bill and instantly felt devalued. My brain went into full-on “questioning expletive mode.”
It was six in the morning and the beginning of a beautiful day in an upscale resort in Maui, where I was a guest. I had just bumped into the aforementioned Caucasian man who was on a mission to find coffee, and I had helped him and his brother find the coffee shop. All I wanted from this exchange was good karma. But now this patronizing offer of money delivered through the hands of racial stereotyping was going to sully it.
I took a deep breath and decided I was not going to get offended.
Using what could be described as a deft jive move, I grabbed his other palm and returned the five-dollar bill to its owner. “I absolutely insist that you take this back,” I said.
“Where are you from?” I asked with a forced smile as Abe Lincoln’s serious face disappeared into a khaki pocket. The man replied, “We are from Chicago and are both retired. I used to work for the railways, and my brother here was a fire chief.”
“What about you?”
“I am from Boston,” I said, as we began the process of cobbling a queue together as the first three customers of the day. “What do you do in Boston?” he persisted.
“I am a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.” While he was processing the information, without understanding why I did it, I added. “Can I buy both of you coffee?” As etiquette demands, both men protested initially and then graciously agreed.
As the three of us lowered ourselves into comfortable lobby chairs adjacent to the coffee shop, the man shared, “I had a son with cerebral palsy whom I cared for all his life, and I am in awe of the work you doctors and nurses do.”
That comment opened the floodgates of intimacy following which we spent an hour talking about his afflicted son and his brother’s daughter’s opioid addiction. We discussed the merits of universal healthcare in America versus the current system.
I told them about Goa, an ex-Portuguese colony in India and my place of birth, and where I spent three decades of my life before moving to the United States to further my orthopedic training. They found it interesting that at one point in time, Goa, with its gorgeous beaches and unique Indo-Portuguese culture and landscape, was a place where many Americans in the 1960s who considered themselves Hippies, overstayed their visas and formed their own little illegal colonies of free love and drugs.
“Yeah, even white Americans can be illegal,” I joked.
“Since fourteen hundred and ninety-two” interjected the fire chief without missing a step.
“When Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” added all of us in unison and laughed. The laughter did not flow out of mirth. It was sparked by the intimate rubbing of three souls that were poking at the embers of humanity and seeing the glow of humor amid the char of tragic irony.
The conversation inevitably turned to politics.
“Let’s just say we wouldn’t choose to have coffee with Mr. Trump,” said the fire chief. “We have a brother who is a MAGA man, and we have tried talking sense to him, but he is hardcore.” They both smiled and shook their heads.
“Trump does have a large support base among Indian Americans,” I offered, lest they felt that it was a sin committed only by white people. I was met with questioning looks and explained, “From conversations with Indian friends who support him, I think it is primarily because of his approach to Muslims.”
I spoke briefly about the history of India. About the repeated Muslim invasions conducted from the vicinity of modern-day Afghanistan, which led to the establishment of the Moghul dynasty in India and the genocide that followed the partition of India and Pakistan after gaining independence from the British. Both men sighed, “Hate is a powerful uniter, and Mr. Trump understands that very well.”
My understanding was that this encounter could have easily taken a different turn if I had thrown his money back at him, told him that I was not who he thought I was and walked away in a huff. Or even if I had accepted the five dollars without clarification and later given it to charity. Either approach would have generated resentment and a feeling of diminishment, in me.
Instead, we parted as new friends who will never forget this healing interaction that left all parties more knowledgeable, empathetic, and understanding of the worlds from which we came and in which we reside.
Gleeson Rebello is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com