I heard his voice long before I saw him. It was barking loud. It wasn’t just the sound that bothered me, it was the words themselves:
“Let me wash your Cultural Cloak for you. Just step right in the bright shiny box, slide the curtain, and all that marketing, advertising, and opinionated horse pocky will be cleansed from your mind, body and soul. And all for the measly price of … f… zero dollars! Come on, who will be first? Clean your cultural cloak, remove the dirt and detritus of hours of YouTube, surfing the web, and the unnatural influence of Advertising. Step right in!”
My lips curled up in a tight smile. I was a Scientist. I was used to holding several ideas in my head at one time, six of which might be dead ends, three that might flat out be wrong, and perhaps one or two that might be worth looking into. To say I was skeptical would be glossing over the fact that I thought the man doing the speaking was a huckster, a cheat, a con man of prodigious arrogance. “Clean your cultural cloak,” what does that even mean.
I was surprised when I swept through the small crowd to gain a look at this maniac, to find not a cheap huckster with suspenders and a bowler to go along with his blustery tone, instead I saw a dapper sincere man who believed in what he was saying. His eyes were warm, trustworthy, and hinted at quite a bit of horsepower under that mental hood. I liked him immediately. That made me even more leery of his intent.
He must have noticed my eyes, or maybe it was my determined effort to press through the crowd that brought me to his attention. Whatever it was, he signaled me out with a challenge:
“You there! (pointing with certainty but not with any malice) You look like a man of Science. (What?) What is the point of Science?”
Before I could answer him, he continued on:
“It is to question the status quo, to experiment, to attempt to find the truth…if there is any such thing. Find the facts first, then interpret them to see if they fit the data. Isn’t that so?”
I nodded my head. In general, he was spot on.
“So I offer you, for free, the chance to do an experiment with all these fine folks watching. If you will step into my Cultural Cloak Cleaner (waving up and down his shiny closet shaped box with the aplomb of any good Game Show Hostess) I will pull back the curtain, adjust the dials, and in seconds, your cultural cloak will be clean again.”
The crowd had grown by several more people by the time he finished this challenge to me. It wasn’t going to cost me a dime to prove this idiot, no matter how enticing or entrancing he may be- was a Charlatan. I smiled a big smile.
“Why certainly. I would love to be the first to have a clean cultural cloak. After all, mine has certainly become a bit dingy, dirty and disheveled over the years. “
The crowd laughed. The dapper man beamed.
“Just so my young man. Just so.”
He waved me in to the shiny box. I bowed dramatically before he pulled the curtain closed and stepped over to the controls. I heard the audience clapping loudly. Then…I felt heat. Faint at first, like the left over body heat on your bed when you crawl back in after getting a late night drink of water. Then more distinct. Like the feeling you get standing in direct sunlight for a minute or two. Then it got truly uncomfortable like barbecuing in a sauna.
I wanted to get out of that box. I couldn’t. I started to panic. It was only a curtain separating me from the outside world, why couldn’t I move? All I had to do was pull the curtain back on its rungs and I would be free. I could see the curtain swaying in a slight breeze in front of me…inches away from my nose. It may as well have been a mile away for all the chance I had to reach it.
Just before I was ready to scream - the heat was gone. Just like that. Gone. I was cool now. Not chilled. Cool. Refreshed. I had never felt like this in my life. I was lighter than I ever remembered. I was free of something. I don’t know what. I just felt…light, happy, new.
The dapper man pulled the curtain back…I saw the smile on his face. I saw the crowd silent with anticipation behind him. Some of the braver souls edging forward to get a good look at me. I heard the comments starting to pour out of the crowd.
“I think he is taller than when he went in.”
“Look at his face. He is smiling like a newborn.”
“My God, he looks fifteen years younger.”
“What the heck happened to him? He looks…relaxed. Free.”
I heard all those comments, they matched what I was feeling. I looked over the crowd and realized I only saw people. Not skin color, not gender, not age, not wealth. I had no hints to their education, status, or occupation by their clothes or demeanor. None of their speech patterns or accents meant anything to me. I had no idea what their religions were, their beliefs, or their political views. No judgment rose up within me to take cues from their clothes, voices, or stance to predict who I thought they were.
It was like I had seen the world through a fuzzy gauze strip for my whole life, and now, well…I had crystal clear vision unclouded by my own biases, beliefs, or boundaries. I saw each individual as an individual.
Then it dawned on me. My cultural cloak had been cleaned. Every prejudice, opinion, and self righteous projection of my tribal nationalism, had been removed. I had no filters to sort out who I thought you were based on any stereotype or generalization. And I didn’t have an ounce of marketing hype, advertising wizardry, or talking head polemics clinging to my cultural cloak.
I looked at the dapper man. He made like he was brushing off a few stray strands of my cultural cloak that may have clung on as I brushed against the curtain to get out.
I could see in his eyes that he knew what I now knew…my cultural cloak was clean.
I bowed again. I made certain that everyone in the crowd saw me pull out my wallet…making a big show as I emptied all the credit cards, money, and business cards onto the ground. All the membership cards that allowed me privileged access to everything from Country Clubs, to Costco…I let them fall to the ground too. I wasn’t special. I wasn’t privileged. I wasn’t better…or worse, than anyone.
I wouldn’t need them anymore. My cultural cloak had been cleaned.
As I walked away, I turned and pointed to the dapper man.