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Bush Declares Day of Respect for Muslim Peoples
by Paul Freedman

I stayed home on a Friday night waiting for a girl to call. She never called, and I started reading a book by Charles Bukowski and couldn't put it down. I was sitting in the sofa in my street-level bedroom with the light on.

I cringed when women's voices would pass my window. I didn't want them to look inside and see me, Paul Freedman, reading on the sofa on a Friday night. The book was too good, though. I couldn't even adjust the blinds.

Then there were steps outside my door, keys jangling. It was a little before midnight. My roommate was home! My door was open. She'd see my legs in front of my sofa! I was paralyzed. I couldn't say hello. She walked past my room and I heard her door close. Did she see my legs?

Then at 1:30 I decided I wasn't going to finish Bukowski in one sitting. I was ready to sleep, but I didn't want to sleep in my bed. How square! Paul Freedman sleeping in the bed on a Friday night? I laid down on the rug and closed my eyes.

Two hours later, I awoke and moved to the sofa. I sat upright, slumped down a bit, and closed my eyes.

I dreamt that George Bush declared a National Day of Respect and Consideration for Muslim Peoples. There was to be no mail delivered. There would be no babies delivered. Businesses would remain closed. It would be an opportity for us all to reflect on the culture, history, and plight of the Muslim peoples.

The idea started, not out of benevolence, but from security fears. There were credible threats of nuclear attacks on America. Bush had to take drastic action to prevent attack. So he declared the day of respect. It was the last option, a forced show of goodwill toward the terrorists. The United States was going to change our ways, fast.

There were 24 hours of speeches. They started at 8 AM and ended at 8 AM the next morning. I took it all in from the sofa in my bedroom. The speeches must have been coming through the city's public address system because I didn't have to get up to fiddle with the radio. They echoed off the other houses and the voices distorted with passion. I didn't get up to use the bathroom. I didn't drink water or eat. I didn't speak. I just listened to the speeches, as if this was the most important thing I could possibly do.

By the next morning I was dead tired, slumped there in my sofa, but I tried to stay awake so I could keep listening to more speeches. Around seven, my neighbors began to get ready for their day. There was an air of optimism. My Pakistani neighbors Jawad and Furrukh with smiles on their faces walked to their cars. They looked through my still open blinds as if to thank me for my respect. My neighbor Betty, an old woman who towed an oxygen tank for her Emphysema, walked into my room and asked me if I was alright.

In the next scene I was sitting around the breakfast table in my family's house in Newton, Massachusetts. It was me, my sister, my parents, and Katie Couric, host of the Today Show. Katie Couric was staying at my parents' house because she was a college friend of my sister and she was in town doing a feature about the Day of Respect. We were all talking about how we had spent the Day. I told them I had spent it in my apartment on the couch.

My dad said: "Did you lock your bike?"

"Did I lock my bike?!" I shouted. "Did I lock my bike?! You are TOTALLY missing the point. Here we are trying to pay respect to Muslim peoples and you still think they're going to come and steal my stuff!"

I really laid into him. But mostly I was mad at myself. I too had thought about my safety, about my things getting stolen. Suspicions of my arab neighbors had crept into my mind too. But in the end I had decided to put my faith in the people, that they would not use this day for evil.

I asked Katie Couric what she had thought of the Day. "Oh, I was just very impressed by the quality of the speeches," she said.

And then I realized, I'm sitting around a breakfast table with Katie Couric. And I spent the whole damn Day of Respect for Muslim people on the sofa! Shit! Why hadn't I gone down to the café where all the Muslim men play backgammon? What a story I could have told. She would have interviewed me on the Today Show! Where was my creativity? Why hadn't I listened in the park with the Latinos? Why hadn't I walked the streets of the financial district? I could have done something!

She said: "Well, I have to get North for this event." And that was it. She was leaving us. It was as if she had said "Well, I can clearly see there's no story for me here, so I'm going North." Well I would go north too! Yes, I too had an appointment in the north. I would share a taxi with Katie Couric. I would ride the commuter rail next to her. I'd give her a story to tell.

I waited by the curb for the cab while she gathered her things upstairs. Then my Muslim neighbor walked out his front door to the sidewalk. I gave him a smile, but couldn't find the words to say anything. My first time speaking to a Muslim since the National Day of Respect. How could I express how much the speeches had meant to me?

Then my cab pulled up. And the Muslim man was just standing there, still waiting at the curb in front of his house, holding his briefcase with two hands. It was obvious that he too was waiting for a cab. I opened the back door. Then I motioned for him to get in my cab. He turned and walked slowly to the cab. He got in, and I gave the door a push. He nodded to me as the the cab pulled away. I nodded back. In that moment, he knew, and I knew, that I had got the true essence of the Day of Respect.

The front door opened. Katie Couric stepped out with her bags, said goodbye to my parents, and walked to the street.

"What happened to the cab? I just heard it honk," she said.

"Oh, I gave it to my Muslim neighbor," I said nonchallantly. She gave me a look of surprise.

Damn straight, I thought. I could see it - "The morning after the day of speeches, one young man, Paul Freedman, gave his cab away to a Muslim man. Tell us why you did this, Paul." "Well, the Day of Respect really resonated with me. This day is about turning to our friends, our neighbors, our fellow man, and saying, you know, this person needs to know that I respect them and I value their contribution to the community. You know, I used to be prejudiced against Pakistanis, but then I began to work closely with a Pakistani consulting firm through my job. Ever since then I have just seen them all in a whole new light."

"Damn, now I'm going to be late," she said. She pulled out a cell phone and called for a new cab.

As I awoke slowly from the dream, the reality set in that I had lost a chance to be on the Today show. I still thought, as the fog of the dream burned off, that the Day of Respect had happened. And I had nothing to show for my experience - no story to tell, no personal essay to write. What a missed opportunity! How often does a National Day of Respect and Consideration for Muslim Peoples come about? And I spent it on the sofa. I could have at least gone mountain biking. Everyone else would be listening to the speeches, all the trails of Marin County would be free. What a fool!

Oh, horseshit, I thought, eyes open, staring at the window onto the street. We're talking about the Muslim Peoples here. Yes, I did the right thing. You don't go mountain biking on a day like that. Why must I constantly make a story out of my life? Why must I package my life for others' consumption? It's not about me and my writing career and the Today Show. It's about respect for the Muslim Peoples.

Then, at 4 o'clock Saturday morning, sitting there on the sofa, it finally hit me:

George Bush would never do that.

I got up off the sofa, turned off the light, and walked to the bed. I shut the blinds. I was safe. I went to sleep.