Brent C. Dickerson

Copyright © 1998 Brent C. Dickerson

   What is identity? What is perception? Which rules the day?

   Life is full of interesting juxtapositions and strange ironies. These and other such thoughts arose one day last summer as I vacationed on the island of Catalina, off the Southern California coast. Now, as a constant visitor since the late 50s—when I was very young indeed—I have become imbued with some habits which, be they the habits of Islanders themselves, or be they the habits of those visiting the Island, are nevertheless local customs. One of these is something which I have always found to be one of the great amusements which Life has to offer, elsewhere as well as on Catalina, but at its best on that Island. Now, Catalina's great metropolis is the tiny town of Avalon, a sort of rhapsody and set of variations on old California, located sea-side on Avalon Bay. The great pastime at any time of the day or night is to sit on the sea-wall which separates the front street from the sandy beach, and watch the world go by. As I need not remind anyone who pursues this pleasure, it is more exciting than a movie! As the waves splash on the beach and the cries of playing children hang in the breeze, one sees visitors and locals parade by—the beautiful and handsome, the young and old, the fashionable, the common, the outdated, the eccentric, wanderers barely knowing which way their next step will take them, workers purposefully hurrying (but, there, never so much as to be unaware of the surrounding carnival of life)—everything under the sun, but always in that atmosphere of effervescence and fun which is, and has always been, the most winning characteristic of Avalon and Islanders.

   At any rate, late on afternoon, I settled down for the usual session on the wall—an event which has been known to last, without flagging, as long as three hours. There was at that time an area of the front street which is, due perhaps to its proximity to the foot of the Pleasure Pier, the place for the cool dudes and dudettes—the mid-teen ones—to gather. Because of this, it is an interesting site with a variable mood all its own arising from the fresh emotions of its habitués as teen gossip about the fluctuating fate of themselves and their peers, and the latest hopes for upcoming parties, unfold. Before long, I noticed that I was not only the observer, I was also the observed! The teens were shooting little glances my way, a phenomenon which I at first attributed to that natural charismatic glow which Avalon bestows on its visitors. It soon appeared, however, that I was mistaken . . .

   A few of the braver teens at length separated from the group and crept up to me. One, with all courtesy, spoke up: "—You an undercover cop?"

   I suspect that my amused denials were not entirely believed; but the conversation which followed was pleasant. Meantime, however, the others, out of earshot and perhaps supposing that I was about to summon an armed squad to place them all under arrest for crimes known and unknown, gazed at me with the greatest suspicion. A few hurriedly skulked away—before my backup force arrived, I suppose—directing a few grunts of "Narc!... narc!..." my way. Whatever the case, however, in reporting anything further, I would stray from my point, a point which, for all its irony, is perhaps inconspicuous at first. The Reader no doubt remembers his or her mid-teen years. You felt as if you couldn't be yourself; you felt that the world was constantly on your case, amking assumptions about you simply because of your appearance—that is, because you appeared to be a teenager. It is interesting, then, to note that teenagers, even at the very moment of feeling this injustice based upon assumptions, busily practice it themselves on someone else. In this case, they saw me, short-haired, middle-aged, in good condition, alone, observant, not in swimming trunks, and assumed the "worst" about me.

   We can learn from this. Prejudice is not an adult monopoly, not something picked up by osmosis from jaded losers at a bar. It is human nature; and the earlier you recognize this and acknowledge its presence within, the sooner you can evict it from your heart. All people, all things, have a right to be understood for what they are, not for what you see.

       "What is your substance, whereof you are made,
       That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
       Since everyone hath, every one, one shade,
       And you, but one, can every shadow lend."

—Shakespeare (from Sonnet 53).

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