Has anybody noticed the scarecrow hanging outside O.W. Pizza? It’s kind of hard to spot unless you’re looking for it, because it’s over on the left side, toward the back, and you can’t see it going east on Markham without craning your neck at a dangerous angle. I hadn’t seen it myself until a friend mentioned it to me a couple of days ago. This friend was concerned, and wanted to see if I would think it looks like what he and some other friends think it looks like.

I think it looks like a crucified black hobo. And so does pretty much everybody else I’ve talked to about it. It’s become a hot topic of speculation. Nobody wants to believe that it could really be meant to look like what it looks like. I’ve driven past it repeatedly in the past few days, trying to see it from another angle, thinking maybe I was too hasty in my assessment. But no. It looks like a black hobo. A crucified black hobo.

It has made me queasy every time I’ve gone by. What could they possibly be thinking? Why hadn’t anybody forced them to take it down? The restaurant was broken into a while back, and so was this a not-so-funny attempt to prevent it from happening again? I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the face was dark because they’d used a ski mask. That would make sense; a ski mask is sort of the universal symbol for burglar. I went in for a closer look. It’s not a ski mask. The face is made of dark brown plaid fabric. Maybe it was the only fabric available. Maybe it really is a scarecrow.

But I didn’t see how this thing could be expected to work in such a situation. It’s so far back in the corner that it couldn’t be noticed by anyone trying to enter any other part of the building. And it’s so high off the ground that nobody could mistake it for someone standing nearby to witness an attempted break-in. Also, when has a scarecrow ever been designed for a human audience (outside of a Halloween display, and even then they usually have these hokey and completely unscary gap-toothed grins)?

For whatever reason, I was only able to read it as a warning. As in: “Don’t break into this place, because this is what will happen to you.” In that light it’s really frightening, and I suppose it could even be effective if it weren’t so damn offensive. It’s so close to the Capitol building and the statue of the Little Rock Nine.

The gentleman I spoke with at O.W. Pizza could not have been nicer, especially for someone who’s been robbed repeatedly. When I told him I live down the street and had heard that they’d been broken into, and asked if he could tell me about it, he said, “Which time?” Most recently, the burglars came on a Saturday morning and broke the gumball machines, stealing all the gumballs, and some frozen beef, and leaving behind a couple of cigarettes and a shirt. They left the radio on the gospel station.

Before that, they came with guns, after hours but while employees were still there. Nobody was hurt; they took car keys and cell phones, and about $200. This incident led to the thinning out of the woods by the restaurant. People were sneaking under the cover of the trees. For whatever reason, the point of entry for break-ins has most often been the patio door. The scarecrow is hanging right next to the patio. I swallowed hard.

“Oh, that,” he said. “We’re trying to plant a little herb garden over there.” A couple of guys who work at OW are in a band, and they had made the scarecrow for their album cover. It had been down in the woods, where they were taking pictures of it. They moved it up to try to protect the seeds. And now they think, “Hey, this is kinda cool lookin’.”

Did he know that some people found it a little bit (cough) questionable, and that a few were worried that it might be (gulp) racially motivated? In fact, he had no idea. “That was just the shirt we found,” for the face, he said. He didn’t think anybody had even noticed it, much less been offended by or concerned about it. He reassured me that it had nothing to do with the break-ins, it was just a coincidence. “We’re planning a ninja scarecrow, too,” he added.

So now I must ask myself, and my friends, and you, this question: How did this happen? The racial sensitivity here is so pervasive that we mistook a humble scarecrow for a symbol of hate.

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