'At least we have a good cance of getting face to face this way.' --Chris Interrante
It is only Chris Interrante's third day on the job at Lindbergh Field. His identity tag is newly pressed and shiny, almost as shiny as the smile he flashes to travelers, their relatives and friends passing through the airport. Interrante is confident in his work, but all day long people are trying to avoid him.
Interrante is a Hare Krishna. After maintaining a relatively low profile for almost a year and abandoning a daily routine of soliciting donations at the airport, he and his fellow devotees have recently returned.
But there are changes. The flowing saffron robes and beads are long gone, as are the shaved heads and chanting. The Krishnas have mellowed, they will tell you, and now emphasize philosophy rather than money.
Your average airport Krishna now looks like the boy next door: cords or Levi's; a conservative sweater or shirt; a wig, if he hasn't grown his hair back.
All this, they say, is by divine design.
"At least we have a good chance of getting face to face this way," Interrante said, cradling several copies of the devotional book Bhagavad-Gita. "Media coverage had given us a bad reputation and all that people saw were our external features. We have changed our look, but that doesn't mean we are out here scheming to get people."
Another devotee said the Krishnas' new look and attitude have made a difference in the way people respond to them. Ron Nichols (many of the Krishnas now just use their Christian names) said that people are more cordial to his advances.
"It is much easier to approach people now," Nichols said. "They are usually very nice. They don't say nasty things like they did before, and even the airport employees are friendlier."
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Airport supervisor Fred Davis said the Krishnas still elicit a negative response from many people, though there are not as many complaints as there used to be.
"The passenger reaction is almost always negative," Davis said. "In fact, I've never heard a passenger say a good thing about them. They do seem to be a little less aggressive than they used to be. I think they are trying to enhance their image."
Counteracting Bad Image
A bad image is one reason the Krishnas decided to play it cool for a while, said Upendra Das, a devotee who has been with the temple in Pacific Beach for seven years.
"In some cases the bad press may have been justified because of the inexperience of some of the devotees," Das said.
Das said the Krishnas do not have to rely as heavily now on solicitations to earn money because of their burgeoning success in business and increased membership in the San Diego area. There are no reliable figures on the number of Hare Krishna devotees in the area, but the Krishnas themselves claim between 2,000 to 5,000 followers. They also own a popular vegetarian restaurant in North Park called Govinda's.
But the Krishnas still must proselytize to get their message across.
Stopped to Listen
Keri Jump, 17, of Marysville, Calif., was at the airport seeing a friend off when she bumped into Interrante. Jump listened to Interrante's pitch intently for a while, then left, saying she had to hurry. But she did accept a devotional book.
"If I had more time I might talk to him," Jump said. "I don't really know who they are, though--I've never heard of Hare Krishna. But they did seem pretty nice."
Nellie Morelos works the ice cream concession just across from a busy intersection in the East Terminal that is favored by the Krishnas. Morelos said the Krishnas don't really hurt business and she enjoys listening to their sales pitch.
"They come on real smooth, real calm, opening the pages of the book at just the right time," Morelos said. "They have a cunning way of getting to a person's last penny. Usually people end up giving them something."
Directly across from Interrante, Clifford Szpekowski, a brother with the San Diego Christian Missionaries, was not buying the talk about the Krishnas' new softer sell.
"He's giving me a lot of competition," Szpekowski said. "He goes up and blocks traffic while we maintain ourselves and wait for people to drop something in the pail. I have nothing against other religious groups but I think that they (Krishnas) are definitely too pushy."