Sometimes when I'm not feeling like a longer walk to the coffee shop at the far end of our village, I venture into the one around the corner.
It's a different crowd that frequents this café. I, and many like me, like coming here because of its better ambience. I for one like sitting at the window, gawking at the cottage country traffic whizzing by.
Of the regulars who frequent this establishment, I particularly look forward to chatting with one colorful character who I run into here every now and then.
I am easy to spot as he enters the darker interior. But so is he with his 6-foot tall frame, his tree-trunk arms liberally covered with tattooed graffiti, his mane sometimes tamed into a ponytail, at other times a wild and free mullet.
But I usually see him first as he parks his Harley-Davidson out on the street. I've known him now for almost two years, and therefore look forward to our meandering chats about the state of the world.
Mitch -- that's all I know of his name -- is a 30-some truck-driver who does an average of half-a-dozen forays into the deep South every month, each time taking a load from Toronto or one of its industrial suburbs, and returning with a haul of one fruit or the other from Florida or California.
He proudly describes himself as a "red neck"; trust me, it doesn't refer to the pink that peeks through the strands of his pony-tail or mullet. He has strong opinions about everything and everybody. He doesn't like politicians of any ilk on both sides of the border. Of course, he has utter disdain for Obama, though he can never come up with a rational reason as to exactly why. He doesn't think much of Stephen Harper either. He has clear views on immigration. And them Blacks and Jews. And gays. And "wimen" too.
Anything wrong with the world is, of course, the fault of those "damn Moslems."
In the beginning of our acquaintance, he would halt mid-way in his sentence when uttering the phrase, and stare at me, frozen ... worried, obviously, as to whether he had offended me ... until I would remind him that I'm not a Moslem, but a Sikh.
"Of course, of course," he would interrupt me hastily, "I knew that ..."
"But," I would interject, "what's wrong with being Muslim?"
"Nothing, nothing," he would say, "I'm just stating that it was them guys, not meaning to suggest that ..." And his voice would fade away, and he would reach for his coffee.
This exchange would be repeated every time we met, as if it had never been cleared up before.
"Of course, of course ... I knew that!" he always said, and then continued with his story.
Why did I humor him then, I often wondered, and waste time listening to his aimless convolutions?
Was it his quirkiness, which always attracts me ... just like the circus does?
Was it because it gave me an insight into a world I know exists out there but I otherwise have little access to?
He means well, I'm quite convinced. It's only that he is shaped by his upbringing. He has his biases, implanted in him from an early age, I'm sure, but has no tools to deal with them. Sometimes I do see a light come on in his eyes when I turn around one of his pronouncements and throw it back at him. You can see him struggling with something, trying hard to understand ...
This morning he's complaining about the closure of the Toronto-bound lanes of the Burlington Skyway, caused by a dump truck with its open box striking the overhead truss of the bridge.
The highway thus closed is the only direct route between Niagara and the nearby U.S. border, and the wide swath of the greater Toronto area, as the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) skirts around the western stretch of Lake Ontario.
"I spent an extra three hours heading home last Saturday, with that goddam' bridge closed and a million Americans wanting to get to Toronto for the long weekend. That bloody Moslem dump-truck driver ....!"
He shakes his head vigorously, obviously most unhappy about the situation.
"What am I gonna do now, they don't know how long before the damn thing gets fixed and the highway is open again?" He mutters a few choice expletives under his breath. "Go through Detroit each time I head south? That's another dog's breakfast ..."
I've heard the news reports on the radio and remember that the errant truck-driver has been identified as being from Brampton. I also caught his name which was mentioned a couple of times, and recognized it as a Sikh-Canadian. It was heart-breaking for me to hear that the buffoon now faces impaired driving charges. I hope they throw the book at him if indeed he had been stupid enough to drink and drive, I remember saying to myself.
"I don't think the driver was Muslim," I say to Mitch.
"Sounded Moslem to me. And he's from Brampton, for sure. What does that make him?"
Brampton is an industrial suburb of Toronto, adjacent to its international airport. It is also notable for its high Sikh population, which some say may be as high as 20 percent. Even higher. The area boasts as many as ten major gurdwaras -- Sikh places of worship. Its representatives in both the federal and provincial parliaments are mostly Sikh, some highly visible because of the turbans Sikh males usually wear as part of their faith.
"I drive past their mosque in Brampton every time I head there for a pickup. I've seen them trucks parked right outside it ..." Mitch rumbles along.
"Which mosque are you talking about?" I ask him.
"You know, the one on Dixie Road ... and Derry Road, I think it is. A sprawling complex ... with domes and minarets and all those, you know, Moslem things ..."
I know the building he means.
"It's not a mosque, Mitch, it's a Gurdwara. A Sikh church. That's where we go to worship, just as you go to a church ..."
"I don't go to no damn church, Sher, never have, never will ... but wait, it's not the same place you and I are talking about. The one I'm talking about is where those goddam' Moslems go ... to do whatever they do there. It's a mosque alright. And I've seen them trucks parked by the hundreds on their grounds ..."
I slap the table hard to silence him.
"Mitch, look at me ... IT IS NOT A MOSQUE! I know the building well. It's a G-U-R-D-W-A-R-A..."
"A gadara, or whatever, I'm sure it's a mosque for sure. I've seen them Moslems coming out of there, turbans n' all ..."
"Just like me, Mitch?" I raise my hand and touch the turban on my head. "Just like me?"
He looks at me. And goes quiet. Doesn't say a word. Stares at me.
"Remember what I told you? I'm a Sikh. Just like the world is full of Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews and ... I'm a S-I-K-H.'
"I knows that," he snaps. "You's the guys who fought for us ... but ..."
"And saved your skin. In every war. That's S-I-K-H. Nothing wrong with being a Muslim, but I don't care what you think, I'm not a Muslim. Just as there are good Christians and bad ones, there are good Muslims and bad ones. And good Sikhs and bad ones. I am a Sikh! And so was that stupid driver who closed down the highway. So stop raving against Muslims, for heaven's sake."
He pushes his coffee mug away from him, as if he needs space to think this one out.
"But I'm sure them is Moslem ..."
"Look at me, Mitch. Am I a Muslim?"
He quickly shakes his head.
"No," he shouts out, "I know that!"
"Same way, that big complex you drive by on Dixie and Derry is a Gurdwara ... say 'gurdwara ... repeat after me ..."
"Yeah, something like that," I say resignedly.
"But I was told it's a mosque." His face is all crumpled up in deep thought. "Why do they finance all those trucks, eh? Doesn't the mosque -- I mean, er, gadara -- own all those trucks? What are they up to?"
"The gurdwara doesn't own those trucks," I explain. "They're parked out there because the drivers often stop by to pay their respects inside. That's why you always see hundreds of cars and even trucks parked on the property. If you go by on a Sikh high-holiday, you'll see a couple of thousand of them. Just like in any big church ..."
"So what do they do in there?" he asks.
"Same as what people do in Christian churches, for example. Or in mosques. Pray. To the same God, only in different languages, different ways ..."
"Oh, I don't know about that. How about them Moslems?"
"Have you ever spoken to a Moslem? Been inside a mosque?"
He shakes his head.
"There you go. Now you know what you have to do ..."
He shrugs his shoulders.
"The Gurdwara is a bit different, though. You do two things when you go in. Pray ... and eat a meal together."
"What d'ya mean?"
"Everyone who comes in, Sikh, non-Sikh, man, woman, child, they all sit down together in a huge dining area and eat together. They don't pay. It's free. It's open to everyone. No limits. Day and night. Any number of times."
His face looks like he's in pain. This is all too difficult to comprehend. It just doesn't make sense.
"You're kidding me, right?" is all he can say.
I have an idea.
"Here's what we'll do. When you're back from your next trip South, I'm going to take you to a gurdwara. You and your wife and your kids, all of you come. Bring some friends if you want to. I'll take you in ... right inside the very same one on Dixie and Derry ... and you can see for yourselves what they do in there."
"You're sure?" he asks.
I nod. "How about two Sundays from now?"
He looks at me long and hard. And then bursts into a smile.
"It's a beautiful place, I've always said. Big and white ... and oh, those minarets ..."
"No, not minarets. Those you'll find in a mosque. These are domes."
"So, how about it? I'll personally take you in and guide you through ... and explain everything ..."
"It's a deal!"