It would be too much to say that I have always been a great friend to the races, but I hope that a casual observer would at least admit that I have, on balance, done alright. Okay. Something like that. Mediocre isn’t always a bad thing.
I do try my best to be reasonable about matters of race in America. I do think about it, and I always have. Sometimes it sneaks up on me, like this time.
In my early 20’s I carried the mail in New York City’s borough of Queens. It was hard work then, most routes were carried in a bag on our shoulder. It probably still is hard, even with the little vans they use now. I was a substitute carrier, a sub, a “floater,” meaning that I had no route of my own. My days started variously at five, six, seven or eight o’clock, and they could really stretch out. I usually took out a route and a half, often two entire routes. It could be a long day.
Thinking about this the other day, I recalled one evening when I punched out at about 6:30 after twelve hours of humping the boonies. The bus that I caught to go home was almost empty. I took a seat near the back and opened the window. The breeze was like a tonic. Another young man got on the bus and took the seat in the back, left corner, directly behind me. “It’s freezing in here,” he said, “shut that window.” I had long hair at the time, and maybe he had mistaken me for a peace loving hippie that could be pushed around, willy-nilly.
Now you should know that I had grown up in a very tough part of Queens. There was always a lot of fighting, and we got hit by the nuns, and we got beaten by our parents too, most of us. I was never one of the really tough boys, nor was I particularly big or athletic, but I was in the mix and I had learned the dance. One of the rules was: never even appear to be backing down from an even fight. No good could come of it, and it would probably lead to bullying. No, if the other boy was about your size and seemed to have about your capabilities it was best to get up in his face and fight him if necessary.
So I turned in my seat and gave him the eyes. We all knew how to do fifty shades of gathering storm with our eyes. And not like Steven Seagal either, with all of that ridiculous brow knitting. All eyes. The look that I gave him was somewhere between “you’re on my radar” and “are you sure that you want to do this?”
“I’ve been working since seven this morning, and the breeze feels good,” I said, “I doubt if I’m closing this window.” Then I just turned my back on him, like the matter was settled. And it was, too. The window stayed open and the rest of the ride was quiet.
This particular young man was white, like me. I could read him like a book, I knew him even though we had never seen each other before. Recalling this incident recently, I wondered what difference it would have made if the young man had been black. Same size and age as me, also not particularly tough or athletic, but black. I had to admit that it would have made a big difference. I would still have given him the eyes, that much was habitual, but I don’t think that I would have said anything. I think that I would have simply closed the window and moved to another spot on the still almost empty bus. The question becomes: would I have been acting out of fear?
Honestly, I don’t think so. It would have been uncertainty, not fear. Fear would be too strong a word. I just didn’t know enough about black people to be able to read them with any confidence. I was ignorant on the subject. It occurs to me that in some people this uncertainty may turn into fear, but somehow I got lucky. All it made me was curious.
Up until the age of fifteen I don’t think that I had ever interacted with a black person, maybe a few clerks in stores, that’s it. Black singers and baseball players? That’s another story. But no interaction. After that I had black school chums, black friends in the Navy (which pissed the white people off! Go figure!), and I had worked with black men, but still, what did I really know about them? About their lives? On what would I base predictions about black behavior? The ice was forming, but it was still too thin to trust by walking around on it. My understanding of black people was woefully inadequate. It probably still is! "Probably" my ass! It still is! Even less then. Hence, that uncertainty that would have occurred on the bus, if that young man had been black.
It’s important to consider these things. One of the more disagreeable aspects of our shitty world is the myth that America has become some kind of “post-racial” society. Only a charlatan trying to sell a flush that included four hearts and a diamond could even say the words “post racial” with a straight face. Maybe I should write more on this subject. Maybe it would be helpful, and you know how much I love to be helpful! Maybe. It could happen.