My husband and I are sitting across from another American couple on our way from ship to shore during our North Sea cruise. In order to get to this stop on the cruise, all the ship’s passengers must travel by 100-person tenders to shore, so it is snug.
We find ourselves knee to knee with another couple and our ears perk up at hearing English being spoken. On this multi-lingual cruise, it’s felt like we haven’t heard English for days. We say hello and share where we’re from.
They say they’re from St. Petersburg, Florida and my husband and I say we’re from Arizona. We each share our familiarity with each other’s state.
But no, the husband quickly moves to correct us. Our impression of Florida is most likely based on south Florida, like Miami. But they actually live in mid-Florida, which, he tells us, is vastly better. The climate is certainly better, oh yes. The economy is different. Oh, and the visitors they get in mid-Florida are vastly better than those who go south.
He tells us that only Minnesotans and Canadians come to visit St. Petersburg, which is just fine with them. South Florida can have all those “New Yorkers” and “Chicago people.” They’ll be more comfortable down there amongst their own kind.
Amongst their own kind? Does he mean Jewish?
I don’t even see this coming. I don’t have an inkling that I’m about to be slapped in the face with anti-Semitism with no warning. But clearly, our fellow passenger has made some assumptions about us: that because we’re from Arizona and are white, we must also be Christian.
He must think that it’s safe for him to bring out some common, run of the mill bigotry, that his code words for “Jews”—the New Yorkers and Chicagoans who inhabit south Florida—will land safely with us, be interpreted correctly; that his anti-Semitism is safe here.
Certainly, it’s better to be an invisible minority than a visible one; at the very least, these days, it makes us a little harder to find and kill, though World War II proved the folly in trusting in that. But at these moments when I’m left raw and exposed, raked over by the secretive coding that modern day bigots use to find each other, I wish I had a bigger clue upon me, something that might have shut him up.
I felt the same way in my twenties when my coworkers at my insurance job spoke of difficult attorneys being “New York” attorneys. I thought it when I met a brand new neighbor once, and the first thing she said to me was that she’d gone to a neighborhood garage sale and was able to “Jew someone down” for a kid’s bicycle. I thought it at my old job on the phone with a client who would not stop insisting that the doctor pursuing collections against her was “a rotten Jewish cheapskate.” He was French Catholic. Each time I’m the Jew, the person listening.
I guess at this point in the conversation the man from Florida is waiting for some type of agreement, for one of us to nod and say, of course, it’s much better if those “New Yorkers” go seek their own down in Miami and leave St. Petersburg to the Minnesota visitors. Or, if we really were the bigots he’s reaching out to, would we commiserate with him and talk about how there are too many “New Yorkers” and “Chicagoans” in Scottsdale now, so we totally understand?
But his words don’t land on receptive ears. I’ve understood the coding. We stop speaking though I’m fuming, impotent, wondering why I don’t have the guts to call him out, ask him what he means by that, and instead bottle up my anger.
And the next time we take the tender from ship to shore and we hear someone speaking English, we’re a little more reticent, a little less likely to talk. So we return silently to the ship.