Thursday, April 23, 2009

The White Jehovah




After 5 years of stopping at the 7/11 on MacArthur Blvd. in Oakland, 5 days a week, to get a Big Gulp of Diet Pepsi for the commute, the Jehovah Witnesses that stood out in front had never approached me or even moved to give me a Watchtower, their periodical that helps explain their ideology. At first, I figured it was just a black and white thing or a culture thing, as they were all immaculately dressed, well groomed, attractive African Americans (Who knew this religion attracted such a pretty bunch) and I was a godless, affected, tired looking white man. Or at least that’s how I felt and looked. They were not dumb - my type had a low conversion rate and I wasn’t worth wasting a Watchtower on. So, they left me alone.

3 Jehovah men and woman adorned opposite sides of the entrance to the store - men on one side and woman on the other. They rarely socialized, keeping to their own sides. When they did, it was to pass some sort of pertinent information. After the information was relayed, they returned to the safety of their side of the double doors. It was very 6th grade without the immaturity and cattiness.

While waiting for customers to enter the store, they held the Watchtower breast high, facing toward the street. It was an awkward position - not natural, but you had to assume that this was a proven tried and true recruiting tactic, a failsafe method just in case an errant potential Jehovah candidate slipped by their ranks unnoticed. However, this was highly implausible, as they always kept an eye out for walk-ups and cars pulling into the lot. Therefore, this pose made them look robotic

During lulls, some read the bible or the Watchtower and the others just sat there passively. This is what they did - their job - and they were good at it.

One morning as I walked past them, I overheard a conversation between one of the Jehovah’s and a civilian, which gave me insight into their recruiting process. The two talked and appeared to be friends. This was not unusually as they knew a lot of people in the community:

Civilian: “How’s your son?”

Jehovah: “Fine, thank you. He’s working out in front of Richmond.”

I thought: “Out in front of Richmond? What does that mean?” To most it was an innocuous conversation, but to me, I read between the lines. It had to be that his son was working in front of 7/11 in Richmond, pushing Jehovah. I had never thought that this proselytizing was a well thought out web, placing the right people in front of the right stores in the right communities; and that there were probably meetings to discuss strategy and share tips and recruitment goals. It all became very fascinating and started to make perfect sense. Or, I was crazy, which is always a possibility.

After years of observing people, they knew who were receptive to God and who wasn’t. They were not there to recruit me or anybody other white person, they were there to flip black Christians and prey on the occasional non-English speaking Latino immigrant. This is why they never paid me no attention and I could walk though them unscathed.

It was pretty simple how they worked:

Candidates would pull into the parking lot, get out and approach the double doors, where the Jehovah’s stood. They would usually make eye contact with the candidate and then go back to talking. I would like to think that the group would make a snap assessment of the candidate and nominate the best Jehovah to approach them on the way out: the young cute Jehovah; the older, sophisticated Jehovah or the salt-of-the-earth, everyday man Jehovah. Whatever the Jehovah calls for.

When the candidate returned, after getting a Big Gulp, cheap coffee or Tacquito, they would wait until they got to their car to approach them, if they felt they were open to conversion.

They‘d catch their eye, raise their periodical and wait for a positive or negative affirmation. If yes, they’d walk over and hand them the pamphlet and make chit chat; if not, they’d smile and walk back to the fray, waving their hands and wearing forced smile as if to say, “That’s cool. Sorry to bother ya. Have a nice day.” They were never pushy and always polite, unlike other people who hang out in front of stores. That’s how the Jehovah’s do it.

One morning I pulled up in front of 7/11 and there he was: a white Jehovah Witness. After 5 years of observing them, watching their every move, I couldn’t help but think that they recruited him to convert me. This made no sense. Why else would he be there? This 7/11 was predominantly patronized by African Americans and because of this, 6 black Jehovah Witnesses were out front 7 days a week (they brought in the retired Jehovah’s on the weekend for part-time shifts) attempting to recruit African Americans. Simple marketing: black-on-black, white-on-white and Latino-on-Latino.

This new addition to the Jehovahs unnerved me. My sensible side said that it was a fluke - this guy moved to the area and requested a transfer; the paranoid and fantasy driven side said that he was there for me. I couldn’t help but think that at one of their recruitment meetings, I was on the agenda. My face would be projected onto a white wall, a picture they clandestinely acquired from one of my many visits to 7/11. They would throw out ideas on how to recruit me. Eventually, someone would say they have a white Jehovah friend from Pleasanton who had been very successful at recruiting tough demographic markets. They would agree to bring this guy in temporarily to the Macarthur store. Brilliant. This was the guy.

I waited in the car and watched them. The white guy was wearing a dark suit, a long wool coat and had a thick mustache with a combed-out side part. He was over friendly like a concierge and broke protocol by mingling with the women. You could tell he was annoying and trying too hard. Maybe he was nervous, knowing that he was there for a specific job.

I slowly opened the door, keeping my eyes on them. One of the men noticed me and turned to the person next to him. I swear he said, “There he is.” I smiled and the white guy caught my eye and nodded. I acknowledged his presence. Fuck! He was there for me!

Up until this moment, I had an unwritten agreement with the Jehovahs: we would smile, maybe say hello, but that was it. We never broke rank and mentioned the weather or inquired about our well being. No, we smiled and kept moving.

Breaking the threshold of the double doors, I greeted the clerk in a similar repetitious style:

“What’s going on, brother?”

“Nothing much, brother.”

The clerk was there all the time and in the 5 years we had never asked each others’ names. Our relationship was simple and to the point, never progressing beyond pleasantries. You need low commitment relationships like this. The only deviation of our relationship was Fridays, when I would say, “Have a good weekend.” But I soon stopped saying this upon learning that he also worked the weekend. I changed the valediction back to: “Have a nice day.”

I kept an eye of them through the front window, while I poured Diet Pepsi into a Super Big Gulp cup. They didn’t appear to be rehearsing or finalizing a plan on how to get me; there was no flurry of chit chat nor were they patting the white guy on the back and saying, “Good luck. Go get’em.” But this didn’t mean he wasn’t there for me.

Before leaving I paused at the door and gathered my thoughts. Leaning forward, I crossed through the door a little faster than usual, with my keys in my right hand and Big Gulp in the other. The beep of the electronic lock rang out. Because both my hands were occupied, I put the soda on the roof of the car while simultaneously opening up the door. This gave them time to react.

I made the mistake of looking up. I was intrigued, of course, and kinda hoped that something would happen. The white guy caught my eye and gave me a look like, “Hey, I’m here. Let’s do this thing.” I sat down and looked out the window. HE was walking toward the car with the Watchtower pointed my way. We locked eyes. His eyebrows were arched with anticipation and he continued moving toward my car door. I gave him the biggest forced smile and shook my head “no,” mouthing the words “No, thank you.”

As he was trained, he stopped and waved his hands, mouthing, “No problem, thank you,” bobbing his head. As he walked back to the group, he continued to smile and wave. The Jehovah’s were nice.

The group was waiting for him. I figured there would be lots of slaps on the back and words of “nice try” or “he’s not worth, he’s too far gone.” But he chose to walk past them and be by himself. He paced for a bit and then returned to the group.

The white Jehovah was only there for a few weeks and then he disappeared. I assume he was transferred back to Pleasanton…disgraced.

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