Day 8 – Florida, Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville
This morning Bassam and I linked up with Wayne and Robert of CNN.com, who are tagging along with us for the next few days to document our adventure through the southeast region of the country.
We hit the road in Atlanta to start our six-hour drive down to Florida and I turn on the radio. The song from the Rocky movies “Eye of the Tiger” comes on and immediately I begin belting out the song while I drum my hands against the steering wheel. Today is going to be a good day, I say to myself.
My singing continues a few minutes later when Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” comes on the radio. Then I realize it’s Ramadan and this is probably the last song I want to be singing right now while I’m fasting.
Driving through southern Georgia, we pass by sequential billboard patterns of porn shops and churches.
Then on the opposite side of the highway in Chula, Georgia I see a colossal confederate flag waving over 100 feet in the air.
Everyone in the car mutually agrees the flag is too racistly awesome to pass up without posing for a photo next to it. The flag off the highway exit stands next to a Confederate souvenir shop by a mosquito ridden pond. Three men sitting at a bunch in front of the shop begin staring at us as we pull into the place’s gravel parking lot.
“Let’s not go in,” Robert says, afraid of what might happen if two brown guys walk inside a Confederate shop.
Anyone who knows me knows when someone tells me not to do something, it just makes me want to do it even more. It’s the reason why my mother blames me for all her gray hair.
“I’m going in,” I said laughing at everyone else’s hesitation.
“Welcome!” said one of the men sitting at the bench to our surprise. “Great weather today, ain’t it?”
The name of the store is Lollygaggers. I walk inside and meet the owner, Robert. He’s a tall man that’s big on hospitality and apparently not as big on visiting a dentist.
I ask him where the name of the store came from.
“You don’t know what lollygaggin is?” he asks with bewilderment. “When you sittin around havin a good time and you aint doin sh*t, you be lollygaggin!”
To our surprise, Robert was incredibly friendly. He talks in detail about how he’s frustrated with how Confederate flags get a bad rap and how he condemns all the racist connotations people associate with the flag. He said everyone is welcome in his shop regardless of where they come from. The guys at the shop turned out to be some of the friendliest people I’ve met on this journey. I expected them to be all prejudiced towards me, and here I was being prejudiced towards them.
The guys and I pose outside the shop for another picture and I upload it on the 30 Mosques Facebook page.
We get into Jacksonville shortly after 5 p.m. About a mile from the mosque I see a sign for this fast food restaurant, which we all once again agree is too hilariously racist to pass up for photos.
“We HAVE to go inside,” I say as I dodge oncoming traffic and U-Turn into the restaurant’s parking lot.
Wayne isn’t fasting so he decides to go inside and order this place’s infamous Camel Rider sandwich. He walks outside showing me what’s the sandwich: ham, salami, and American cheese.
“I think this is probably the most American sandwich that you could possibly eat,” Wayne says.
The place has pretty much nothing but ham and sausage on the menu, making me laugh because apparently the owner of the place is Palestinian (he wasn’t there).
Robert the photographer is hungry too and asks me what he should order, since he’s a conservative Christian that doesn’t eat pork. Our conversation is interrupted by a guy who pulls into the parking lot in a rusty white BMW.
“You guys wanna come to my party?” he asks as a woman walks out of the car and adjusts her pants as she walks into the restaurant. Robert and I walk up to the guy in the car and he hands me a CD-R with “Chokehold Records” written on it in a Sharpie marker.
I take a look past the man’s stained wife beater and survey the gutted interior of his car filled with crumpled papers, Cheetos wrappers and a Marshall Field’s shopping bag (because thugs like pleated khaki pants on clearance).
He invites Robert and I to an album launch party at the arcade center Dave and Busters. Because when you’re releasing a thug rap record, make sure it’s at a place where you can play Dance Dance Revolution.
I then notice the man is repeatedly drinking shot glass rounds of vodka. Nothing is classier than getting tipsy parked outside of a fast food restaurant in the mid afternoon.
Bassam then walks up with his camera and begins snapping pictures furiously at him. The man is alarmed about why he’s taking pictures and gets slightly irritated.
“Oh God, we’re gonna get shot,” I think to myself.
Bassam and Robert calm him down after explaining we’re on a road trip and the photos are for our blog. He then explains he got caught off guard because he thought we were reporters and the last thing he wanted to see were headlines saying “Rapper gets caught drinking and driving.”
He agrees to photos and scornfully tells the woman with him to strike a seductive pose for Bassam.
“She’s one of my rappers,” he said while trying to bring back up the subject of his Dave and Buster’s party.
He says to get into the party, I need to get on his guest list. His guess list was a tattered binder he pulled out from under his seat that had crumpled up coffee stained pages in it. He hands me a pen and asks me to sign my name. I’m allowed to bring two people.
I have no interest whatsoever to attend the party, but I decide to sign it anyway. I sign using the name “Armando Valenzuela,” the standard alias I used to use as a kid when doing prank calls. I’m allowed to bring two people to the party, and the man says Robert and Bassam are allowed to come.
He then tries charging me $10 for his “Chokehold Records” CD. I politely say no and he tells me I can’t get into his party unless I buy the CD. We decide not to and walk away.
I see Wayne standing nearby with an angry look at his face.
“What, you won’t let me come to the pimp’s party?” Wayne said. “I see how it is, the white guy isn’t invited? What am I, chopped liver?”
I look up and see the building’s minaret, the tall towers attached to the the mosque’s building. Immediately I ask someone there if we can climb to the top, so Bassam can get a photo of me doing the “King of the World” pose from the movie Titanic.
A Bosnian man and his son walk up to me asking if I’m the guy who wants to climb to the top of the minaret. The son walks with me telling me how dangerous it is to get up there.
I look at the 10 rungs of the minaret’s ladder and laugh thinking it’s no big deal to get up to the top. “You think that’s it?” the son says while trying to taunt me.
He said the at the top of the ladder is a hatch that I have to push open to unveil about 100 feet worth of more ladder rungs to climb. Never willing to back down to a challenge. I begin climbing with no hesitation. The kid begins mocking my lanky chicken legs going up the ladder’s rungs.
“Wow, you climb like that and you expect to get to the top?” the kid says with another taunting laugh. I want to confront this kid, but I cant deny the fact that I’m intimidated by this ladder climb. I try heaving the hatch open but I don’t have enough strength to push it all the way back.
“Come on man, just push it open!” the kid says continuing his taunt.
At this point, I give up. It’s time to break my fast anyway. The Islamic Center of Northeast Florida is incredibly diverse. I look around and see a mix of Arabs, South Asians, Bosnians and African Americans sitting together and feasting on tonight’s meal.
After dinner, I then meet Shauib (pronounced Shoe-aib), He’s in charge of the mosque’s security and talks about the how someone tried to throw a firebomb at the mosque in May. It was all over the news if you didn’t hear about it. He then shows me what the damage looked like in a photo he took with his camera phone while standing at the top of the minaret.
“You’ve been to the top???” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s easy to get up there,” he said. “I’ve done it in my chappal (sandals).”
Now I feel like even more of a sissy. I need to go up there. Now.
“Want me to take you?” he said.
I grab Wayne and Shauib takes us to the base of the minaret. He climbs up the ladder and shoves open the hatch and guides us to the top.
The climb is tough but a lot more manageable than that Bosnian kid tried to make it out to be. I stand at the top to check out a breath taking view of the mosque. I see Bassam hundreds of feet below me and I shout for him to come over and snap some pictures of me.
Echoing through my head as Bassam is taking pictures is that “Eye of the Tiger” song I was singing earlier today. I felt like a champion.