He’s a young, African American—early 20s, I’m guessing. From where I’m standing, I can’t tell if he has dreads or braids under his bright red, Cardinals flat bill. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses, a gray zip-up hoodie over a plaid shirt, low slung jeans revealing blue boxers, and spotless high tops.
I’m at the front of the serving line, dishing up pork roast, cabbage, and potatoes. Emily’s next to me, adding watermelon and bread. T–, a Bridge guest, is helping behind the line tonight, capping off the trays with thick slices of donated pies and cakes.
Aviator is not happy with T–. Apparently, there’s some disagreement about whether he’s already been through the line once. Or maybe he’s angry on behalf of the woman in front of him, Miss S–, who seems to be hoping for seconds. I feel for T–, who’s just following the rules: No seconds until/unless the chef gives the okay.
It’s not going well down at the end of the line.
I’m trying not to eavesdrop. It’s none of my business. Except Emily is right there, so I’m listening for any indication that she needs to step away.
Aviator gives up and walks off. Miss S–, a sweet, 70-something with thin, gray dreadlocks and a deep compassion for the birds outside her apartment building, tells me that if her arthritis weren’t acting up, she’d give him a knuckle sandwich. I’m not sure to which “him” she’s referring, but I laugh, because it’s clearly what she’s expecting from me.
Aviator’s now pacing back and forth in front of the serving line, offering just barely audible commentary. Emily, who heard more of the original skirmish, assures me that whatever he’s saying, it’s not directed toward us.
“You’re supposed to be helping people. This is bullshit.”
“All you have to do is look me in the eye. I’m a person, too.”
And then, “Half of y’all are racist anyway.”
“Oh,” Emily says. “Maybe he is mad at us.”
I’m mortified. Racist? Did that guy just call me racist?
I start to walk toward him. To assure him I’m not racist. To ask him why he would say such a thing. To find out what I can do to prove that I’m a good person. But he is really agitated, and Emily pulls me back. “No, mom. Not a good idea.”
At the end of our shift, I’m surprised to see Aviator sweeping the dining room—because I’ve already decided he’s a jerk, and this is not jerkish behavior. “Where’d the dustpan go?” he yells across the dining room, and I hand him the one I had been using. I don’t know what I’m expecting. Maybe, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve obviously misjudged you. You are clearly not racist.” He says nothing.
And then it hits me: People have made all sorts of assumptions about me over the years—but not one of those assumptions has been based on the color of my skin. Aviator, though? My guess is he encounters this kind of thing daily. Daily.
I’ve written before that we don’t love one another because we don’t know one another. This morning, it occurred to me that maybe we dislike one another because we think we do know one another—based on skin color and attire and taste in music and all sorts of ridiculous qualifiers that have absolutely nothing to do with what makes a human being worthy of love. We jump to conclusions. We don’t offer the benefit of the doubt. We see issues instead of people. I wonder if thinking we know people is actually more dangerous than not knowing them at all.
The next day, I’m back at The Bridge, hoping for a shot at redemption. Aviator’s there, too. He approaches the table where I’m counting guests as they come through the line. I tense up. I hate that I do, but I do.
“Hey, can I have a napkin, please? Or a paper towel or something?”
Here’s my chance! Racial reconciliation via paper products! (Yes, I know I’m ridiculous. Remember: It’s part of my charm.) And I cannot find a napkin. (It doesn’t occur to me that I have hundreds of napkins sitting right in front of me, wrapped around plastic sporks.) AGH! This is my moment! Seriously?! Where are the freaking napkins?
I give up. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where they went.”
“Ah, no worries,” he says. “You’re good,” he says.
I don’t know about that, Aviator. But I’m trying.