I was born and raised in New York. Born in Brooklyn, raised, mostly, on Long Island. Over the years, I’ve lived in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and….a short time in Denton, Texas. That short time in Texas made me no fan of the southern United States. I was singled out as a “yankee.” I owned record albums….yes, this was decades before CD’s came along …..albums by Johnny Mathis. “Y’all listen to that N----?” It was the first time I had ever heard that word said out loud. And it just flowed from her mouth like water from a stream. I was shocked and dismayed. I was a fish out of water as far as that particular stream. I didn’t stay long.
By happenstance, I had to travel about a year and a half ago, by airplane. It was February, and it was a brutal one. I was delayed getting to where I was headed by a day. I was yet again delayed trying to get home by two days. Because of blizzards, I was sent to Charlotte, North Carolina.
I cannot even describe the scene. There were, I would guess, thousands of people stranded. The line to get to my “ticket” counter seemed to be at least a mile long. It was getting late. Very late. Tempers were flaring. The young girl in front of me on this ridiculous line finally started sobbing and fell to the floor. “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” She was clearly in her twenties. I’m on Medicare. I frantically tried to call the airline and somehow managed to get my way booked home, but I would have to spend the next day and night in Charlotte. Meanwhile, my husband, back in New Jersey, was trying to find a place for me to sleep the night. (What did we do without cell phones?)
He found me a place, but their shuttle was down for the night – it was now past 11 pm. I could not remember when I last ate. Even though I was in a major hub of an airport, the place was shutting down. All of the food establishments and kiosks were going dark very rapidly. I slipped into one that still had lights on and a couple of people inside. Not much to choose from, so I grabbed a turkey and cheese on rye prepacked sandwich and a Mexican Coke. Ah! Mexican Coke, what a find!!! For the uninitiated, Coke made in Mexico still uses real cane sugar rather than corn syrup. It tastes like Coke did in the 1950s. Bowling alley Coke. The Real Thing. For some ridiculous reason, this made me inexplicably happy.
Outside, there were yet again massive lines for taxis. But I had a sandwich, a Mexican Coke and a place to sleep. I could do this.
When it was finally my turn, my black cab driver kindly took my bag and hoisted it into the taxi. I tried to thank him but he was already in the driver’s seat. Off we went. I tried to make a little small talk. How far? Not far. I got stuck in a blizzard. Wow. We got to the hotel. Again, he kindly took my bag out and helped me into the lobby. I tipped him and he seemed….surprised.
Behind the lobby desk was a middle-aged black woman. It was now somewhere between midnight and one in the morning. This poor gal had the night shift. I used to work nights at the University of Michigan hospital…….did that for four years. I know it isn’t fun.
But, in spite of the fact that people were starting to trickle in behind me, and once again, I tried to …you know, be a person…and talk a little…she was abrupt, polite, business and all business…here is your key. Enjoy your stay. Never once did she look me in the eye.
I chalked it all up to me being tired and over sensitive. This place had a kitchen which had everything except a bottle opener. I put the coke in the fridge and took a long, hot shower.
Afterwards, near exhaustion, I pried the damned bottle open with a knife. The pre-packaged sandwich could have been dinner at Le Cirque. Then the curtain came down and I slept for ages.
So, with blizzards in the North, I woke up to a day in Charlotte that was 70 gorgeous degrees. I went downstairs. The hotel provided breakfast. Not just rolls and coffee. BREAKFAST. There were scrambled eggs and sausages, waffles, pancakes, toast – I don’t know what else. I’m not interested in meat. I had to triple toast my bread….thing was set really low….plus, my toast has to be practically charcoal for me to like it…… And a pile of scrambled eggs. And tea. Hot, black, strong tea.
There was yet another black woman supervising breakfast. She was very sweet and told me where everything was. She seemed slightly amused that I was hesitant. I really could not believe this smorgasbord was there for the taking and there was no charge! But there was something off, yet again. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
I was still exhausted from the ordeal of flying and getting stranded…..so I spent the day watching old “Frasier” episodes and snoozing. I could have had an equally wonderful dinner on the house that night but I didn’t feel up to socializing with strangers. Just next door to the hotel was a “Subway” and a gas station with food stuffs inside. I got a sandwich and a Heineken. I also bought a bottle opener for $1.29 and donated it to the next weary traveler.
My plane took off early the next morning, so I had to rise at about 4:30 am to get to the airport. The same lady that checked me in was checking me out. All business. No eye contact. I waited for my cab. When he arrived, the hotel lady and the cab driver appeared to know one another and exchanged pleasantries. My ride to the airport was much like my ride from the airport – silent. I didn’t even try this time. I made it home, two days late, tired, bleeding money, and perplexed. What was it?
When I read and saw what happened in Charlotte the other day, it dawned on me. Oh, no….oh, no. It dawned on me. Now I see. Now I understand. Now I know what it was that I could not understand. I come from the North. I grew up in a melting pot and never cared what color or anything else anyone was. And now I see. I see again what I heard in Texas so many, many years ago…except…in Charlotte I saw it from the other side.
Why won’t he talk to me? Why won’t she look at me? Is it me? Am I too loud? Am I too forward? It’s because I’m a brash New Yorker…right?
Now I see. They are afraid. Black people are afraid. In the 21st Century in this so-called “democracy,” they are afraid. They are afraid of white people. They are afraid to look someone in the eye. They are afraid to engage in conversation.
As I write these words, I weep. How could I have been so blind? Yet, how can this be the truth of our contemporary America? It isn’t a truth I care to know, but I have heard it and I have seen it. And I am ashamed and dreadfully, profoundly, deeply sad.
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