“I hate errands,” Ethan said cheerfully.
It was late Tuesday afternoon and we were headed to the light rail station to do the shopping we’d put off over the weekend. I don’t like such errands either, but we couldn’t keep avoiding this one. Ethan needed supplies to make a portfolio for a high school application; and, at half a foot taller than last year, he also needed jeans.
The fact that we don’t have a car can be a burden on days like these. Ethan’s dad could have him to Target and back in less than half the time it would take us. But Ethan understands that I can’t drive because of my disability. While some people without legs do fine behind the wheel, cerebral palsy, which is a form of brain damage, affects my spatial perception enough that I would be a danger on the road.
Thankfully, it was a warm day and we were both in sunny moods. We walked down busy Washington Street, talking about Lie to Me, the one television show we watch during the week.
“I just realized it must have been the undercover FBI guy that was sent to check on the red car.”
“It was,” Ethan agreed. He was quiet a moment, thinking. “Why does the FBI take so long before they bust someone? Don’t they sometimes take years?”
I nodded. “They have to build relationships.” At that exact moment, Ethan burst in with, “Oh, they have to build relationships.”
“Jinx!” we called, simultaneously. “Jinx!” Ethan called again, making me laugh.
We were a block from City Hall when we noticed a crowd gathered at the corner. A guy I recognized from a local band was playing guitar while the group around him sang America the Beautiful.
“What’s this about?” I wondered aloud. Then I remembered an alarming article I’d read to Ethan the week before about an anti-gay/anti-Jewish group from Kansas that was coming to Hoboken to march, first in front of City Hall, then the synagogue.
“This must be the counter-protest to that Kansas group,” Ethan said, still in sync with me.
According to the article, the mayor and the rabbi both urged that there be no counter-protest stating that hate groups thrive on attention. But peacenik that I am, I drifted toward the singers, finding several friends in the crowd.
“This is unbelievable,” our friend Caroline said.
Cordoned off in front of city hall were six people — five women and a girl I would guess to be about eleven years old. They wore bloodied American flags like aprons, but it was the signs they carried that made me gasp. You Will Eat Your Babies. Anti-Christ Obama. Fag Halloween. God Hates America. God Hates Jews. God Hates You.
“God Hates You?” I repeated, incredulous. “You who? Everybody?”
Another friend, Nancy, turned around when she heard my voice. “Everybody except them.”
She held a pink, construction paper sign that read, God is Love, What are You?
“Hey Mom,” Ethan said. “They think you eat your babies.”
“Well, that part’s true.” I grabbed Ethan’s arm and mimed pouring salt over it and taking a bite. But I was joking out of discomfort. Ethan had seen the twin towers get hit from his kindergarten window. That was more than enough hate to witness in one lifetime.
Everyone around us, led by some high school students, began singing Imagine. I joined in, staring at the signs across the street in growing disbelief. Strangely, the picketers proudly displaying those hateful slogans didn’t look hate-filled. With their glazed expressions and unwavering smiles, they seemed beatific. But when our group finished singing and began to chant Hope Not Hate, their smiles, which at a closer look appeared arrogant, only grew. I was starting to feel that the rabbi and the mayor had been right. Those signs were inflammatory for a reason. Our outrage was their fuel.
Still, the statements were so ludicrous and mean it was hard not to rail against them. The picketers were packing up their signs and climbing into a van when I finally pulled myself away.
Walking to the light rail station with Ethan I felt shaken. I’d seen hints of racism in people and picked up on the homophobia behind bad jokes, but the level of bigotry we’d just witnessed astounded me. God Hates You. An enormous, plural you. A rage — or was it fear? — expansive enough to include everybody.
Taking my seat beside Ethan on the train, I shivered.
“Why do they hate everyone so much?” he asked. “And what does Fag Halloween even mean?”
I shrugged and shook my head.
It felt good to get busy on our errands. At a large office supply store, we bought what we needed for Ethan’s portfolio. Swinging our bags as we walked, we talked about the artwork and music samples he should include.
We’d reached the entrance to Target when Ethan stopped. “That’s them,” he said stiffly.
He nodded toward a girl with long blond hair walking through the parking lot with two women.
“Oh my God,” I breathed. “Are you sure?”
“I recognize the girl,” Ethan said. “It’s definitely them.”
Without their bloody flags and vicious signs, they looked so ordinary, a pretty little girl out shopping with her mother and aunt.
“I feel sorry for that kid,” Ethan said.
“I think I feel sorry for all of them.” We watched the threesome head toward a van, the same one we’d seen in front of City Hall. “God loves us!” I yelled, but they were already out of earshot.
“Now you just sound like a crazy person, Mom.”
As the van carried those odd messengers of hate off into the darkness I exhaled, realizing that though I’d read about hate groups and seen them in the news, this was the first time I’d come face to face with one. What shook me was that they’d chosen to bring their ill will to my home. I love my town precisely because, like its neighbor Manhattan, Hoboken is liberal and embracing; and also because it’s small enough that most of us know one another and our kids.
Feeling grateful for my community where kindness is the norm, I followed Ethan into the store that somehow felt comforting with its bright lights and simple, innocuous signs.