I am staying home from work today. It is an Arctic Tundra out there.
You live in Houston.
We have Black Ice which means that if you drive your car it automatically plows into another car. And the temperature...why it's 28-degrees! It was 22-degrees a couple of days ago so there must have been a warm front. And snow. Snow is coming and I didn't buy a snow shovel. We are expecting 3-inch snow drifts! I'm having second thoughts about vacationing to Antarctica this year.
Three inch snowdrifts? 28 Degrees? Have you watched TV? Have you seen what is happening up north?
But we live in Houston. They are used to that stuff. Besides, we have Black Ice and I didn't hear anyone say anything about Black Ice up north. By the way, when I say Black Ice I don't mean that in a prejudicial way.
Prejudicial way? How can...I'm having a hard time with your brain. Wait....is this one of those transitions?
You know, I grew up in the segregated South.
Yep. I would call that a transition.
I even went into the back door of a cafe with black friends to eat with them in the back room because they weren't allowed in the main room with white folks.
We...aren't you just...
That's because I asked my father for a summer job as a teenager. Since my father was the City Manager I was assured of getting something cushy but I ended up working on a garbage truck. I never asked my father for another job.
Another transition already?
It must have put Hawk and his crew in an uncomfortable spot -- me being the big man's son -- although I didn't consider that possibility at the time.
Hawk was a really big black guy and he was the boss of the garbage crew. I liked him and always asked him if he was Coleman Hawkins in disguise. You know, Coleman was a famous jazz musician and called himself Hawk too. Hawk...the garbage man Hawk...thought it was interesting that I would even know a black musician and I think he liked me. Anyway for lunch we would drive up an alley next to Main Street and stop at the back of a cafe and they would go in the back door. Hawk told me to go around to the front but I told him I wanted to eat with the guys. At first everyone looked at me funny but Hawk just said, "He's in my crew."
Did they mind....
At the time I didn't think so. But they must have felt that I was invading their space or something.
And the point is?
Hawk may have saved my life. Well, not exactly....but we were unloading garbage at a trash dump and I was on top of something high. I'm not sure what. It was a tremendously hot day and I got heat stroke and fainted and Hawk dived forward and caught me in his arms. The crew loaded me into the garbage truck and they rushed me to a doctor's office. Hawk stayed with me there the rest of the day, even after he called my father and he came down there. He wouldn't leave. "Jerry is in my crew," he said.
I have fond memories of Hawk. I think I remember my father did something for him, but I don't remember what. I'm pretty sure I quit the job after that.
That is interesting. Where is this leading exactly?
To Melissa. I think that is what her name is but I'm not sure if I am remembering correctly.
Hawk to Melissa?
Yeah. I guess I was in my late twenties working in a downtown office and I was an analyst and Melissa was an Administrative Assistant. She was black lass and really pretty, but more importantly was her vivacious personality. She was one of those girls who had laughing eyes which made it a treat just to be around her.
Melissa and I would flirt with each other, and it was pretty obvious. She understood that I really liked her and I was pretty sure she liked me. We had fun with each other and always found a reason to be in each other's presence.
Weren't you married?
Let's stick with the subject. Back in those days we usually brought our lunches with us from home and ate in our offices. One day, for the first time, Melissa came into my office at noon and asked if she could join me for lunch. We each ate our lunch and bantered back and forth which I truly loved. Then the conversation became more serious. It was 'The Conversation'.
It was a conversation that made me take a long hard look at myself. A conversation about race.
I can't remember it word for word, but it went something like this. It was an exchange that I replayed in my mind over and over.
Melissa looked at me across the desk. "Jerry, we like each other and have fun with each other, and if you are like me, look forward to coming in every day to see each other."
"Absolutely", I responded. "If you take a day off, it is really a bummer for me here."
"Can I ask you something serious?" she asked.
"If we weren't married, would you ask me out?" She had crossed her legs and was leaning forward looking at me.
"In a heartbeat," was my automatic response.
"I understand because I feel the same way. But where would we go? Would you come to my place to see me? Or would you invite me over to your place? Some place that we could spend private time together?"
"Sure," I responded hesitantly wondering where the conversation was going.
She began to look earnest. "But Jerry, would you take me to the movie and sit and hold hands with me? Would you invite me out to eat -- maybe to a nice restaurant with candles? Would you walk down the street with your arm wrapped around me?"
"I....". I tried to find a response.
"No. Don't answer. You are a white boy and I am a colored girl. We like each other and it would be fun to be with each other. But, in public? Could you stand the taunts and ridicule? Could I stand it? What about your family? Or mine? What if we got married and had a kid?"
I didn't say anything.
Melissa continued, "I'm not trying to put you on the spot. I am just trying to explain a reality. A woman looks toward the future -- even hugely improbable ones -- and a man sometimes doesn't. My reality is different from yours, and for colored people it is a reality we are always aware of. I wonder if you understand that."
"Melissa. I am..." I tried to find some words.
"It's all okay." She stood and walked around my desk and leaned down and kissed me on the cheek and hugged me and said, "I adore you. You are one of the good people."
With that, she walked out.
From this conversation, you learned...
I learned so much. I learned that I wasn't one of the trailblazers that could blithely defy convention. I learned that I didn't understand the rules and didn't understand why there were rules. I felt ashamed and felt like it wasn't my fault but also felt like it was my fault. I guess the most important thing was that I learned to observe and think and try to understand and that it somehow tied into Hawk telling the people in the back room of the cafe that 'I was in his crew' which meant that everyone was to leave me alone and him catching me and sitting with me in the doctor's office all afternoon.
Was your heart broken?
No. Melissa and I flirted and that's all we would have ever done, race aside. In fact we continued to do so...but there seemed to be an undertone of understanding...or of sadness maybe.
And now, it is years later.
Melissa was brave to bring up what should have been obvious to me. Maybe she was purposely planting a seed....maybe not.
Yes, but would you now walk down the street with your arm around a black lady?
Let me put this in to perspective. If Marilyn divorced me, I would ask Halle Berry to marry me.
And now you understand why I am not prejudiced against Black Ice.