Three stories of race

16 Jan

Martin Luther King

For Martin Luther King Day I’d like to write about race, in three vignettes.

The first is about a family outing to a New Jersey lake resort. I was 8 or so, and we were going to one of my favorite spots. As our car stood in line at the gate, I realized something was wrong. The car in front was holding things up. There was an argument between the gatekeeper and the vehicle’s occupants, who were black.

My father went out to see what was happening.

When he returned, he seemed a little different, a little upset; certainly more reserve.

“They weren’t allowed in because they aren’t members,” my father said.

“Are we members?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but I think they are going to let us in.”

The incident seemed unimportant once we were inside, although my father talked to other relatives about it. As I grew up and understood more, I never forgot the combination of guilt, sadness and, was it shame? that I had seen on my father’s face that day.

My second little story is about the only tip I ever received while working summers at a pizza restaurant. I was 20, and so good at making pizzas they let me manage the place. As a manager, I would try to remember what people normally ordered. For example, there was a theatrical-looking black man with a pencil-thin mustache and a fedora who always called in for a garlic and anchovy pizza.

One busy Saturday night the other pizza guy didn’t show up. This was a take-out place and the whole front of the store was packed with people either picking up food or trying to place orders. It was noisy and chaotic. I was trying as fast as I could to get people out so there would be room for those coming in. As I pulled a garlic and anchovy pizza from the oven, I saw its owner walk in. I boxed the pie, gave it to the cashier and pointed to the man with the mustache, who was way in the back, behind rows of impatient white people.  He walked forward, paid and left.

At closing, the cashier pulled two bills from her pocket and handed them to me. “From the black guy with the mustache,” she said.

Nice gesture, but I didn’t understand its depth until I lived for a time in a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. There was a deli next to my building that was always crowded with people – black people. It was nearly impossible for me to get a sandwich there. If someone behind the counter had handed me one as soon as I walked in, I would have been surprised and delighted. I would have thought better of mankind and the world and most definitely would have offered a tip.

And so, because of that, I better understood the man in the fedora.

The third story is one I don’t quite understand. I don’t understand the socio-economic forces at work. Perhaps someone can explain.

My aunt, now deceased, ran a dry cleaning business in Philadelphia and lived with her family above the shop. When she started, the neighborhood was white. That changed, but she stayed put. Years later I asked her son, my cousin, what it was like being the only white family for blocks and blocks. He said when the neighborhood first changed, everything was fine. The new people were good people, family people. Then they moved out, and the people who moved in destroyed everything.

 Those are my three stories about race. Taken together, what might they say about life in America and the quality of our humanness? Please share your thoughts.

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