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Meet the Satans
By Alexander Gelfand

The first time I saw him strolling through our neighborhood, I did a perfect double-take: the kind you see in Three Stooges movies, or those old Tex Avery cartoons where the wolf's eyes bug out and his tongue rolls to the ground like a bright pink ribbon.

There, right before my unbelieving eyes, was a tall, dark-complexioned man with a neat black beard, a fistful of ornate silver rings, and two small but unmistakable bumps on his forehead. Horns: firm, slightly pointy protrusions, as red and shiny as tiny apples. Apparently, while I wasn't looking, the devil himself had moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, just ten subway stops from Manhattan. (Perhaps even the Prince of Darkness is unwilling to pay Midtown rent.)

A few days later, my wife, Ingrid, reported seeing the same apparition in a local health-food store, this time in the company of a beautiful red-haired woman. She, too, sported tiny horns, along with sharp, elongated ears. We called them "the Satans," and dreamt up elaborate speculations regarding their origins and habits. Were they hard-core neopagans? Devil worshipers? Super-freaks? What kind of lunatics would give themselves horns, anyhow?

We never bothered to ask them, of course. We were too scared.

My mother-in-law, Karin, however, was not. In town for the weekend to see our two-year-old son, Lazar, she ran into the Satans at the Colombian bakery around the corner from our apartment. They had an infant with them in a stroller (no horns), and Karin showed not a moment's hesitation. As my father-in-law later told us, she walked right over to their table and introduced herself. "Those look awesome!" she said, eyeing the horns. "Are they Halloween costumes?"

Thus ensued a conversation in which it was learned that the Satans were in fact named Tony and K-Ta; that they ran a neighborhood tattoo and body-piercing parlor; that their little girl, Emily, was just a bit younger than Lazar; and that they were, objectively speaking, two of the nicest people one could hope to meet.

A week later, Lazar and I ran into Tony, K-Ta and Emily back at the same bakery. I introduced myself as Karin's son-in-law (a.k.a the Husband of the Daughter of She Who Was Not Afraid), and we spent half an hour cooing at one another's children, talking about local schools, and discussing the trials and tribulations of being self-employed parents. Take away the radical body art, which we talked about, too -- the horns are silicon implants, provided by "a friend in Brooklyn," and nothing compared to what the Europeans are doing -- and we might have been any random grouping of parents and kids at the local playground.

When I got home, I couldn't stop marveling at how sweet Tony and K-Ta were, as if their cosmetic alterations were an elaborate mask designed to hide their true natures. Ingrid had a different take on it, one that I suspect is closer to the truth.

What if the horns and ears are more than just a provocative disguise, a transgressive fashion statement, or a particularly aggressive way of standing out from the crowd? What if they are a filter whose main purpose is to weed out all but the least judgmental among us, the ones who don't jump to conclusions based solely on appearances?

I would never have approached Tony and K-Ta on my own, and I was only too willing to mock them from a distance. (Cowardice has always paired well with fear and suspicion.) Karin, on the other hand, treated them like human beings; and in so doing, she forged a connection with some lovely and fascinating individuals.

Like most people, I like to think that I'm fair and open-minded, not to mention a good judge of character. Now I'm not so sure. After all, if I can't tell a devil from an angel, what else might I be getting wrong?

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