Sunday, April 29, 2012

Measuring The Distance From Home

Back in the mid-‘90s my mother asked me to go to an auction. It was at a house in Warren, Indiana where she lived as a girl. “When we cleaned the place out back in the ‘60s, the only thing the family didn’t take was a big oak wardrobe,” she said over the phone. “It’s in the sale. Thought you might like to have it.”

I don’t turn down free stuff. I went.

We arrived to find the cabinet in the back yard crowded with other furniture. There was a tent set up in the yard filled with tables of what auctioneers call “items too numerous to mention.” While the auctioneer started on linens, we went through the house.
Scattered memories flooded my mind. The house was Italianate, a style popular in the Midwest in the 1870’s & ‘80s. My great-great grandfather built it. I remember running my hands along the curved hallway wall when I was a child and a Christmas visit when I tormented my great aunt’s cat and it turned on me, leaving me bleeding and crying.
My mother stopped and stared at the ceiling. “When I was a girl, the ceiling collapsed,” she said, looking up. “Bees got in under the clapboards and built a hive between the floor joists. The honey got so heavy and the plaster so gooey . . . bees and honey everywhere.”
We bought hot dogs at the Kiwanis booth and sat on the front porch steps. The auctioneer started on glassware.

“My father - your grandfather, lived here when he was a boy,” she said wistfully. “He told me once about the first car they got,” she smiled, looking at the gingerbread woodwork overhead. “His father told them he was going to buy a car before he came home that night, so they waited here on this porch before dinner. Finally they heard the Model-T come ‘round the corner, and there was my father’s father behind the wheel.

“My father, only about 8 years old, ran out to the street, but his dad didn’t stop, he went on around the block. A moment later he came ‘round the corner once more and again, didn’t stop. On the third go ‘round, he yelled, ‘I can’t stop this thing!’

“On the fourth go ‘round my father ran alongside the car and jumped in, worked the peddles for his dad and got it stopped. My grandfather never drove that Model-T again. My dad used it though. He was just a kid, but he got a job delivering pies for a bakery. He’d sit on his mother’s lap in the front seat. She’d work the peddles and he steered and they delivered pies.”

The auctioneer was working his way toward the backyard. My mother stood and stepped back to look at the house. “I remember coming home from a party when I was a girl and sitting on this porch and telling my mother about all the fun I’d had. She just shook her head and said, ‘You kids don’t know how to have fun.’”
“Your mother was born in 1907 and she said you didn’t know how to have fun?” I asked, incredulous. “When was this?”
“Oh, I don’t know . . . 1940s.”
We went back to bid on the cabinet and paid more than it was worth in dollars. A young couple was bidding against us. Made me feel bad. There was no way they were going to get it.

The cabinet broke down into 4 pieces. Three sections made up the big clothes-hanging body on top. This sat on a low base cabinet with 2 drawers. When I dismantled it and loaded it in my truck, I found a wooden ruler in the bottom drawer – the kind with imprinted black numerals and a metal spine. I studied it for a moment. In a child’s handwriting, the name “Jack” had been scrawled across it. I handed it to my mother. Her mouth dropped open.
“My brother Jack kept his things in that drawer when we were kids, during the depression,” she said.
While I finished moving the cabinet, my mother walked about the crowded yard, clutching the ruler in her hand.
At home, in my house, there was a new baby named Jack. Since my uncle Jack had recently died, it seemed right somehow.
We pulled away from the house and drove down the streets my mother had known so well in her youth, past the theater where she once worked, making her a trivia expert on movies and actors from the 1940s. She brought me here often when I was small. I remember the hat shop and the drug store soda fountain.
“I remember you cleaning out the house after your aunt and uncle were killed in that car accident,” I told my mother as we crossed over the bridge at the edge of town and drove past the grain silos. “You yelled at me for sliding down the banister. Remember?”
“No, I don’t remember. I was in a daze,” she said. “Trying to accept that my aunt and uncle were gone . . . and I wanted the piano, but your father didn’t want to move it.”        

“Thanks for the cabinet, Mom,” I said, patting her hand. She smiled, then looked back out the window, clutching the ruler in her hand.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Segregation On The Beach

Making my way across the soft sand, headed for the water’s edge for a few mile walk, I’m immediately greeted by the sun-drenched spring-breakers between the age of 16 and 22. They are everywhere, lounging, tanning, drinking, and gathered in massive clusters of 50-100 shouting and singing and screaming to one another.

As I walk between the waves and the high rises, I also notice that most of the black folks are in their groups and most of the whites are in theirs. Not a lot of mixed groups.

Next door to our unit I’ve seen a group of black college boys taking out their trash and icing down their beer. A couple doors further on there’s a room filled with white college boys doing the same. I assume what I see here is a reflection of their circle of friends and family at home. The segregation started way before we all got to the beach.

With the Trayvon Martin case so much in the news it’s hard not to ponder this segregation; the where and the why of it, and what it does to our perceptions of one another.

Reading the New York Times yesterday, clicking through CNN, FOX, MSNBC once I got here, and listening to NPR thru headphones on the drive down from Indiana, the punditry is in full bloom, like this early spring, the opinions are as predictable as the progress of foliage on the roadside. FOX News of course defends the shooter, George Zimmerman. MSNBC of course defends Trayvon. And everybody else does what the news media generally does – brings both side together for a “debate” made up of angry accusations. As usual, NPR is the most balanced and thoughtful.

Like the segregation on the beach, we bring our biases with us wherever we go.

Around me, I note the sides people take in this debate are generally informed by what they believed long before Zimmerman shot Trayvon on that dark and confusing night in Sanford, Florida. On Facebook, a loose-cannon former student of mine whose status updates mostly offer irrational hatred for the president, suggested last week that Jesse Jackson and Alan Sharpton should be shot for inciting racial hatred. Endless others assume that Zimmerman and the Sanford police are racists.

On an NPR call-in show, a listener says, “I can pretty clearly imagine what happened.” The man, whose name and accent tags him as white, explains a scenario in which Zimmerman felt threatened, unfortunately panicked, and shot Trayvon. The host asks if the man has inside information about the event. “No,” he says, “I can just imagine how it happened.”

No doubt black folks can imagine something quite different.

A week before heading to the beach I showed a house to the owner of a Noblesville pizza restaurant. During the showing a young black employee called to say he would be late to work. Heading to work after classes at Ivy Tech he’d been pulled over by Carmel police. They made him step out and then searched his car, dug under the seats, ransacked the trunk, scoured the glove box. They found his insurance had lapsed and impounded his car.

Within the Indianapolis African American community, Carmel police a reputation for pulling blacks over for DWB: Driving While Black.

Standing in the kitchen of the house, the pizza shop owner (who is white and young) anxiously questioned his employee, “Did you ask them why they pulled you over in the first place? And they didn’t answer? That’s bullshit! You’re down there, right? You walk right downtown to the police station and insist that they tell you why they pulled you over in the first place. Do you have somebody that can pick you up and bring you to work?”

He hangs up his cell phone, purses his lips, and shakes his head at me. “I’m sick and tired of my black drivers being pulled over in Hamilton County,” he says. “The cops always find a reason after the fact, but never have a reason in the first place. Doesn’t happen to my white drivers. Explain that.”

Frustrated, he turns back to the issues at hand – the house, and we silently move on to examine a first floor bedroom. No sooner have we passed the threshold he turns to me and asks rhetorically, “Why, why, why? I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.” He’s not talking about the house. He’s talking about what his black delivery drivers face everyday.

Yes, blacks experience a different world than we white folk do. And it’s usually subtle and gentle and easy to deny.

A fellow Realtor shared an unsettling story about a client of his – a black doctor who bought a $700,000+ home in an upscale area around Geist Reservoir. The agent called his client a month after closing to ask how his family was enjoying the new house. “Love the house,” the doctor said, “but not the commute.”

“The commute’s not so far,” the agent replied.

The doctor, who drives a new Jaguar said, “I’m pulled over by the police at least once a week as I enter the area of gated and exclusive communities near my home. The cops never seem to have a real reason. They look at my driver’s license, my registration, proof of insurance, say something about driving too fast or sliding threw a stop sign. But considering I’m pulled over once a week, I don’t speed and don’t slide threw stop signs. And they never write me a ticket.”

Whites who don’t participate in this kind of behavior have nothing to feel guilty about or apologize for. But we sure as hell ought to sympathize rather than dismiss what African Americans face in our communities.

What do I believe about the Trayvon story? I’m waiting for the full story to come out. I neither automatically accept what Zimmerman says nor what Trayvon’s family says. If I was either of them, with the international media spotlight crammed in my face and so many angry people taking sides without all the facts, I’d be saying what they’re saying. I’d be playing defense.

As I walk the beach headed back to the condo I notice a scrum of perhaps 75 kids along the water in the blazing sunshine and heat. In the crowd I see a couple Noblesville kids – been seeing them everywhere. I scan the crowd for my daughter and her friends. This group is mixed. About 75% white – 25% black. That’s encouraging. And I consider our progress. There is no beach with a sign that says, Whites Only. And as I’ve already said, the hotel is a colorful mix of people. That’s way different than the world I was born into back in 1960.

And I try to imagine myself on that sidewalk in that gated community in this southern state. If I was walking at night and someone parked a car near me and began following me, I would be afraid and would prepare to defend myself – no matter their color. And if I saw a suspicious person walking in my neighborhood – as I often do at home, I would not grab a gun and start following them. In fact I don’t know anyone who would do that. That amounts to begging for trouble. This wasn’t a war zone for Gods sake, it was a gated community! And if hoodies make kids look suspicious, then every single kid in Noblesville High School and in every high school in America is suspicious . . . and a hellova lot of adults, too. The only thing that’s certain: some tragic decisions were made that night, perhaps by both Zimmerman and Martin.

We all bring our pre-disposed biases to this issue. And to the beach.

I leave the water’s edge and trudge the soft white powder toward the scrub-grass and the condo high-rise complex beyond. Approaching the wooden ramp I see a white woman, perhaps 70 years old, sitting with a book in her lap and a sun visor pulled over her gray hair. She could be any woman in my mostly white community back in Indiana, at a Tri-Kappa meeting, or in the church fellowship hall after church, or at a coffee shop book club group. Nearby, a black man about the same age with salt and pepper receding hair has taken off his flower print shirt and shakes the sand from it. As I approach he puts his shirt back on, walks toward the women and sits in the empty beach chair beside her. Without taking her eyes from the book she reaches out and takes his hand gently, lovingly.

They are a couple, perhaps married, enjoying the beach.

Being the kind of man who constantly looks for common threads and connected meaning, and having thought hard and felt sad about all these things during my walk on the beach, I pass them with a smile and take the ramp to the foot wash with a tingle running up the back of my neck. It’s a wash of emotion not just in recognition of the distance we push between ourselves and other human beings who are different from us, but also for those who reach out to bridge that distance. As I rinse my feet I think of the Tracy Chapman song, Across The Lines:

“Across the lines,
Who would dare to go?
Under the bridge,
Over the tracks,
That separates whites from blacks”