The bigot within

GRAFTON — This summer, a resident of Chester's main street staked a homemade sign in his front yard, a few feet from the road. In bold, black letters, artfully arranged on a white background, it asks, “What part of 30 MPH do you not get?”

It must be hellish to live on there on Friday afternoons when tourists rip through town and again on Sunday afternoons when they rush to get home to Connecticut, Massachusetts, or New York.

There is so much divisiveness in our world, so much either-or thinking that hurts ears and clogs minds. In our country, you're either conservative or liberal, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, atheist or believer, native or immigrant, Vermonter or flatlander.

Buddhist teachers say that we do better when we think of one another as alike rather than different. I'm not a Buddhist, but I've tried to live by sensible guidance wherever I find it, and I used to believe that I was relatively immune to the affliction that causes humans to separate ourselves into tidy categories of “them” and “us.”

* * *

Since I moved to Vermont, I've been divested of self-righteousness. I've discovered the bigot within me.

Other people go to therapy to reunite with their “inner child” or hand over big bucks to workshop gurus who connect them with their “hidden genius.” I get gobsmacked by a demon.

I'd only lived here for a few months when I began to look askance at drivers in vehicles with out-of-state license plates. I quickly learned to hit my turn signal and steer toward the shoulder when I saw them in my rear view mirror, whizzing toward my bumper. It was easier to move out of the way than get angry.

One Sunday afternoon as I was leaving Chester at a sedate 30 m.p.h., a shiny maroon SUV with Connecticut plates appeared out of nowhere, zoomed passed me on the double yellow line, and flew on by.

His reckless driving proved that he was a person of disreputable character just like all Connecticut residents. They should be deported, I thought as the SUV rounded a curve and disappeared. I was as entrenched in my irrational opinion as the 21 percent of Americans who believe that President Obama is a Muslim.

When I glanced in the rear-view mirror again I saw the flashing lights of a state police cruiser. I pulled over, and the trooper rocked on.

A half mile up the road, he was parked behind the SUV. Lights were still flashing. He stepped out of the cruiser to apprehend the miscreant.

I drove by, raised my hand through the sunroof and gave a merry wave.

Hasta luego, baby!”

Justice was served, and I was oh-so-pleased.

It was the first time I'd ever experienced schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. For too many people, misfortune comes unbidden. There is no pleasure in witnessing that, but this guy had invited his own misfortune. That's how I excused my uncharitable thoughts.

When I turned onto my own peaceful dirt road, I was still so pumped with schadenfreude that I thought about parking my car, getting out and lounging on the hood, so that when the scofflaw drove by with his expensive ticket stuffed in the glove compartment, I could wave again and gloat.

* * *

“We are protected by prejudice. We don't want to destroy prejudice. Prejudice is our house, our mother,” film director Frederico Fellini said.

Now I understand how it starts. A stranger infringes on “your” turf. He doesn't act like you or look like you. Maybe he doesn't speak the same language.

So you make up a story about him, and embellish it with your fear. The mindless speeder from out of state becomes an “alien” disguised in pressed khakis and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and he's driving a stolen car. He was born in Kenya or Mexico, and he's up to no good.

I tried to dodge my bigot by staying home from noon on Fridays until Monday mornings.

But there's no escape from the people who scare us. Whether we live in an exclusive gated community or a culturally diverse neighborhood in rural Vermont, they walk among us.

I can hide from the tourists in Chester, but I can't hide from the second-home owners on our road.

They aren't terribly dangerous and they don't come often, but when they do, they disturb our peace. During the day, our ears are assaulted by volleys of gunshots and the constant roar of dirt bikes.

On summer nights, we're kept awake by the hiss and staccato cracks of fireworks, as illegal here as they are in Connecticut. We don't call the police, because that's not our way. We toss in our beds, reach for our earplugs, and grumble to each other in the morning.

No matter how loud the uproar is, I must keep peace in my mind. I can't afford to give the bigot too much room in my house. She only adds to the din.

When the part-time neighbor three doors down throws his annual party, it's a challenge to silence the bigot. We all dread the party the way 14th-century Europeans dreaded the Black Plague.

The guests from away arrive on a Friday afternoon, park their vehicles along the side of the road, unload tents and cases of beer, and promptly set about bending their elbows for the duration.

During the day, they engage in target practice or “play” musical instruments through amplifiers. The “music” consists solely of C, F, and G chords and resumes late at night, after the fireworks. The sound ricochets across the wetlands, blasting through the trees and open windows.

* * *

Last summer, the party was held the weekend after Tropical Storm Irene. Like Vermonters everywhere, we were shocked, grief-stricken, stressed, and exhausted. Road crews were working overtime. So were the people who were feeding the crews and anyone else who needed a meal.

On the far end of our road, weekend visitors to Camp Destiny brought a truckload of food for people in need and worked all Saturday cleaning up homes on the Grafton-Townshend road. Later on, second-homers in many communities opened their doors to families displaced by the storm.

In our immediate neighborhood, it was party-hearty.

The fireworks woke me up around 9:30 p.m. I was too tired to think twisty thoughts. I climbed out of bed, got dressed, threw a leg over my ATV and drove to the party. I looked at the guitars and amplifiers arrayed on the deck and shuddered. Many guests appeared to be knee-walking drunk. It was a while before I located the host in the “madding crowd.”

He greeted me with a smile.

“Hi, good to see you. What can I get you? Beer? Wine? Whiskey?”

“Nothing, thanks. What I'd really like, please, is for you to wrap up this party. There's been a disaster here. Everyone is exhausted and needs to sleep.”

He assured me that there'd be no “music” after 11.

I thanked him and drove home, closed my windows, inserted earplugs, and slipped into the arms of Morpheus.

I slept in deep silence, free from discordance and the bigot's mad blather.

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