I’ve lived here for over three years, but I still get that “look” from strangers every time I step into a diner or coffee shop, or even into the gas station to pick up a newspaper on my way to work in the morning.
Cold, penetrating, like staring down a pack of wild animals, their pupils opening wide as I come near. I almost expect them to sniff the air, trying to catch my scent as it blows in on the breeze coming through the open door behind me.
If I turned tail and left, would they follow? Or would their eyes return to normal, filling up with a dull emptiness that exists once all danger has passed? I’ve never found out. Instead, I walk right in, my eyes locked on the “Order Here” sign, my hand on my wallet, ready to place my order, pay quickly, and get out of there as soon as possible.
The ones who care about me being here are the ones who sit by the front door. On the lookout. The eyes and ears of the village. I guess someone’s got to keep an eye out for troublemakers, or even worse, outsiders. And here I am, the ultimate outsider, from out west or down south, or even another country—whatever the latest story is.
I’ve heard snatches of those stories, mostly at the gas station, where the woman pumping gas always seems to know what’s happening. “I haven’t seen your wife much lately,” she says about my girlfriend “Is she okay?” And I never know how to respond, so I just smile and answer “yes” and move on.
I realize as I write this that I’m living a cliché, that what I’ve experienced since moving here from Portland has shown up in countless movies and television shows:
An outsider walks into a diner or bar (or saloon or juke joint) and suddenly all conversations stop. The locals, tired and worn, look up from their coffees or meals or mugs of warm beer to check out the stranger. The entire room pauses until, at some unheard signal, everything returns to normal, the conversations, the meals, the quiet lives of these people.
But in my world it’s never like that. Usually only one small group of people looks at me. The ones by the door. Men, women, sometimes even small children. The rest of the coffee shop or diner continues as if I’m not even there.
And as I walk by that table by the front door, with those wide, dilated pupils following my every movement in slow motion, I glance down at their upturned faces, some wrinkled, some young and fresh, and I wonder how long I have to live here before they ask me to join them.
- Inside the Yellow Aster Saloon, Randsburg, California, ca.1900 (CHS-1798), Wikimedia
- Group of “Morgan’s Men” while prisoners of war in Western Penitentiary, Pennsylvania, Wikimedia
- Le repas du chat by Joseph Bail (1862-1921), Flickr