This story was originally presented as part of a 6-Minute Memoir event on the theme of “Turning Point,” held last February on Zoom. Described as “speed storytelling for a cause,” the live events feature a dozen presenters sharing personal experiences in six minutes or less, with all proceeds going to charity.
I only meant to celebrate the rightness of the morning. Sundress weather for walking my dog, a new friend made along the way, then a killer aquafit class. I was craving a double scoop of burnt marshmallow ice cream.
On the streetcar to Ed’s, one of my favourite Toronto ice cream shops, sunlight warmed my shoulder. I was halfway into a daydream when a loud male voice pulled me back, preaching holy war in Jesus’ name. Muslims were killers, he said. Their faith demanded blood sacrifice.
The preacher sat a few rows behind me, hard eyes flashing, cheeks plump with baby fat. The fury in him scared me. Across the aisle, a woman in a niqab pressed her cheek against the window. People looked at their phones, their hands, the passing scene outside. A woman with a care-worn face muttered under her breath while heaving a shopping cart off the streetcar. As the doors banged shut behind her, I saw the calculation she had made. This wasn’t her problem. Let someone else respond.
Why not me?
When I was 14, I saw a boy shamed in my English class. I wrote a short story about my silence. The story won a national contest and became a staple of middle-school anthologies. More than 50 years later, I still get fan mail from students and teachers who think I know something about courage in the face of cruelty. But at 68, I had never been the one who took a stand.
The streetcar rattled east toward the ice cream parlour. The woman in the niqab hadn’t moved; her eyes glistened. The holy warrior was spitting hatred. I stood and looked down at him. “It’s time for you to stop. I’ve had enough and the rest of us, too.”
The holy warrior curled his lip. “I have a right to free speech. You’re interrupting our conversation.”
“Conversation? You’re abusing someone with your monologue.”
“Well, then, you’re interrupting my monologue. You should sit down. Jesus said, ‘Mind your own business.’”
I gripped the metal pole as if it were a lance. “Jesus never said anything of the kind.”
“Sure did. Three times.”
I never went to Sunday school. The Serenity Prayer is the only prayer I’ve ever spoken in a church. Rocking with the motion of the streetcar, I thought of what Jesus really said. The holy warrior needed to hear it. “Jesus said, ‘Love one another.’ Buster, I don’t see any love from you.”
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I’d never called anyone “buster” before. How pleasingly it rolled off my tongue. Surely it would inspire someone to back me up. Of the dozen passengers, I only needed one to shift the balance between me and the holy warrior. But there they sat, looking anywhere but at the two of us, just as I did that day in Grade 9 English.
Bobby Craig, who had no friends, was delivering an oral report when the cool kids rose and brandished signs for “The Bobby Craig Fan Club.” I never forgot Bobby’s tentative smile, followed by his horror when he realized these classmates were mocking him. The whole class burst out laughing. I hung my head, waiting for our teacher to stand up. She didn’t.
This happened the year JFK was shot. I met the holy warrior the year of migrant toddlers in cages. Grief for the world had been weighing on me. So much lethal fury, so little one person could do.
What kind of difference had I made in the streetcar? None that I could see. I was on my own and out of words. The Muslim woman had her hand against her veil. I turned my back and strode to the door with his venom ringing in my ears.
All I’d asked of that July day was a double scoop of ice cream. The bonus was a turning point. Just because no one on the streetcar backed me up didn’t mean those people were unmoved. Maybe someday their silence will trouble them. Maybe they will ask what they should do the next time they witness hatred. There will be a next time; that I know for sure.
Former Chatelaine editor-in-chief Rona Maynard is a writer in Toronto and the author of a memoir, My Mother’s Daughter.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “What Jesus said.”
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