Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Other

 Woolworth's lunch counter (Smithsonian)

I tried to build a coherent picture of my seatmate as I rode Amtrak from Cleveland to New York.

The obvious stuff: 40-ish, black, heavyset, financially on the edge. I got the financial bit as he talked on the phone about his imminent move to a smaller apartment.

He clicked away at his laptop, editing, re-editing video segments of silently dancing young women, fishnet leotards, backsides wiggling at the camera.

As we passed snow-covered fields, my preconceptions became more confused. His desktop picture showed him mugging on a Fox television set.

Then he watched a British period detective show.

Then we got talking.

He started to comment on President Obama, but I interrupted, saying we should keep off politics. I remembered the Fox photo and didn't want to listen to opinions about facts.

I learned about his happy childhood in Harlem, his dad--a cop, his British Virgin Islands slave ancestry, his love of music, visits to music clubs, including The Apollo, discrimination in the workplace, the time he met Muhammad Ali.

The Apollo, Harlem
We talked about privilege in America, white privilege, ultra-rich privilege. Our political views and our interpretations of history were cut from the same cloth. We talked about our fears of The Other, and the political exploitation of fear.

I confessed to noticing the Fox photo.

He laughed. He had not thought of it that way. He had been working with a band which was playing a segment for a Fox affiliate. He freelances video, DJing, that kind of stuff. "I'd do it for no pay."

He explained how music has helped break down racial barriers. In the 60's, black and white kids could dance together to the same black music over the objections of their parents.

"I'm a drunk," interrupted an old drunk black guy as he rose from the seat in front of me.

He asked me my age,  I told him "63,"  he boasted: "I'm 78... and a drunk."

The three of us then plunged into a conversation about Harlem, the American Songbook, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, some common ground.

This was not my first encounter with a gnarly old black man which started with unease, then moved on to giggles, chipping at the racial divide.

Once, I was the only white person on a crowded city bus riding across Chicago's South Side. An old man walked down the aisle, preaching. I wanted to be invisible.

When he reached my seat, he pushed his face towards mine and asked why white folks call the Holy Spirit the Holy Ghost.

I lamely told him I didn't know.

"Because they're scared," he announced triumphantly to the whole bus.

We laughed, and I felt less scared, more connected.

Rosa Parks, National Statuary Hall, US Capitol.
Note: I took the photographs this week in New York City and Washington, DC.


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