Independence Day was just around the corner.
People everywhere else were planning barbecues and parties and packing their cars for vacation trips.
Not here. The cavernous waiting room at the supersized medical facility was packed. No streamers were hung from the walls. No bunting was draped across the entrance. No patriotic music played on the sound system.
The mood was quiet and serious with a hint of anxiety. Just a few feet away, in the offices beyond the waiting room, friends and loved ones were being poked, prodded, stuck, squeezed and slid in and out of noisy machines.
Lives and futures were literally on the line.
Sitting nervously, tapping their toes or gnawing their nails as a friend or loved one was diagnosed or treated was a group that appeared to include at least one member of every race, religion, shape, color, size, ethnicity – and opinion – in the world.
We could have posed for the official 2018 Portrait of America.
There was little else to do but size each other up, trying to guess who might start trouble and who might stop it. The tension was thick and nerves were raw.
A wrong word could easily have sent tempers flaring. It never happened. We had more important things on our minds.
Directly across from me, an older couple who appeared to be Asian spoke quietly to each other in a language I didn’t understand. Next to them an African-American man was sandwiched between two little girls who sat quietly and snuck looks at me. I looked back. Smiles were exchanged.
“Beautiful young ladies,” I said to the man.
“Thank you,” he said. “They got their mother’s looks, but they can still be a handful.”
A few seats away, a couple of teenagers sporting fancy shoes and big smiles were on their own, waiting for someone to be treated and released. They were too tight to fight, but passed the time trying to nudge each other into some harmless mischief.
A woman speaking what I recognized as Spanish pointed two youngsters to seats beside her where they sat quietly as the minutes ticked away.
A child started crying. No one seemed to mind. His mother passed the baby to the man next to her and went back to be seen by a doctor. The child calmed right down.
When the mother came out, she was clearly distracted and started walking away. As the family followed, the Asian man jumped to his feet and in perfect English said, “Ma'am, you forgot your bag.” She collected her purse and thanked him in a Southern drawl Scarlett O’Hara would have envied.
For almost an hour, people came and went. Some may have been suspicious of me because of how I looked or talked. They might have suspected I felt the same way about them.
But no one raised a voice in protest or a fist in anger. No one asked my political opinion or who I’d voted for. No one really cared. I got it.
We had been brought together by circumstance and chance, but left to ourselves, forced to focus on really important things, like the well-being of a loved one, we got along just fine.
For a moment, maybe two, it occurred to me that if we could see each other at our most vulnerable, in settings where courtesy and manners mattered more than ideology, we might all be able to get along a little better.
It was a brief thought. But a nice one.
Alex McRae is the author of “There Ain’t No Gentle Cycle on the Washing Machine of Love.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org