I drove across the country and back recently (left on December 28th, returned on January 16th), so got to see myself through the eyes of a lot of strangers.
I don't dress particularly well most of the time (baggy pants and a sweatshirt), and from a distance, I look sort of like a Mexican day laborer. (See picture at right.) Up close, I look (increasingly) like an older laborer.
Because I'm lean, and appear serious, I also look sort of tough. (That, I promise, is nothing but protective camouflage. The only possible way I'm tough is by over sheltered, upper middle class standards -- which is to say, I'm not tough.) Anyway, people tend to react to me leerily when they see me.
But when I open my mouth I sound, if not cultured, at least educated, so people let down their guard a bit once they hear me. I tend to get chatty with strangers, as a way to let them know I'm not a threat.
One group which always seems to react to me (and everyone else) as a threat are the Indian proprietors at practically every motel I stayed at. I tend to favor Days Inns, which are cheap but acceptable (by my low standards). Most cost $59 a night, and were clean enough, and had wifi, which is all I ask.
But those Indian owners don't seem to have gotten the hang of hospitality. They all regarded me suspiciously, and between the lot of them didn't crack a smile or utter one pleasantry. I stayed at a Western Inn in Tucson one night, which also had an Indian proprietor, whom I had to speak to behind a thick plate glass window, the kind they have in liquor stores in certain communities. (Their rate was $33.95 for the night.)
In the cold light of the next morning, it was apparent it was that type of community. As I was about to get into my car, a scruffy young black guy about my size approached me and asked, "Got a cigarette?" I shook my head no, and he said, "Oh, don't smoke..." and veered off.
While he had been walking up to me, I, of course, had been thinking of exactly what I would do if he tried to mug me. He didn't have a particularly aggressive cast to his features, and was likely harmless. Probably, all he wanted was a cigarette. But if he had sized me up, I'm guessing that he would have thought me both tougher but also less athletic than I am.
There was no one else around at the time, and I'm guessing that at 6:45 in the morning, he was more likely late to bed than early to rise. I'd like to think that he was in fact out to mug me, but was scared off by my appearance. I'll never know, of course, but if that was the case, it wouldn't the first time my protective camouflage has helped me.