My first day on my first job in LA began disastrously. The coke-snorting manager of the high—end-ish restaurant where we all dressed like pirates took me into the kitchen to meet the chef. His name was Sal. He was African-American, well over six feet tall. He nodded, carving something big, juicy and pink with a knife. He barely looked at me. “Where did you come here from?” he asked in an accent from an island somewhere. “Um, Alabama,” I said. “Hm,” he said, ceasing his carving. He held up the big silver knife and pointed it directly at me. “They still hang brothers down there?”
Horrified, I could tell he was serious and not at the same time. But something told me in order to survive my working future with this man, I had to meet him on the same level playing ground of truth and humor. “Not on my street,” I answered.
He looked at me hard before breaking into hysterical laughter. He put down his knife, wiped off his hand and shook mine.
For the next few years, when someone asked where I was from, I said Delaware.
That first day on the job, I learned two things from my fellow waiters: 1), An epithet for Jewish people I’d never before heard. And 2), If you’re new, you have to take the senior waiters’ black customers because they don’t tip well. And this was LA. My first day on the job. In what I’d always thought was the most progressive city on the planet.
I grew up in the deep south, a place that didn’t foster self-reflection. The religion, the politics, the mores some of the most rigid on earth. Thankfully there were people dropping bread crumbs on the trail to help me out of my own prison of learned rigidity. My grandma Bess, one of the most rigid personalities you’d ever meet, would say, “Never judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Although my formative years were spent in the nuclear fallout from things George Wallace wrought when I was still a toddler, I don’t remember seeing the scenes of law enforcement turning the hoses and dogs on blacks in the street until I was nearly grown. These things weren’t taught in my all-white private school history class. Ditto the holocaust. Man’s inhumanity to man not big sellers back home.
Wallace was a cult leader back then. Five-year-olds walked around with his stickers on their schoolbooks. The five-year-olds didn’t know why. It’s just what you did. Indoctrination begins early. Same as it does today. Running through the house one day, I stopped to watch a clip several years old of Vivian Malone and James Hood attempting to enter the front door of the University of Alabama. Wallace’s face filled the screen – all teeth, greasy hair and fury. I thought they must be the two bravest people on the face of the earth. I remember racing back outside as fast as I could, not wanting to see how it ended, knowing it couldn’t be good.
Around the same time, I heard the preacher at church one day say that those of different faiths who happened to hear of Jesus’s teachings but failed to convert were doomed to hell. I told my mother I thought that was crazy. “That would make God a bully,” I said. “I know,” she said, “I knooow.” I already knew my mother had to hide her yoga books from the Sunday School friends who said the devil would snatch you soon as you went into down dog. Alvoy was the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, a man who died before I got to meet him, a man whose Shakespeare I inherited. She told me he had to be the only one of his kind, a preacher who smoked unfiltered camels, fathered his last child at 70, and loved to stay up all night debating the meaning of life, pondering philosophies and religions most Baptists would not.
Another man’s shoes.
When word got out that one of our kin had had an abortion, Alvoy came out on the front porch to find me making a fort out of rollie pollies. She said I should be as compassionate to this relative as I could, that even when one has to make the difficult choice to end a pregnancy, that mother still mourns the loss of a child. “No one without a uterus should ever have a say in what a woman does with her body,” she said, already headed back inside.
Another man’s shoes.
One day a friend and I were out on a boat fishing with his dad. “What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?” my friend asked his father. “Democrats care more about others and Republicans care more about themselves and their families,” he answered. “Why aren’t we Democrats?” my friend asked. “Because I care more about my family.”
Fair enough, I thought. Still, it was a conversation that continued to rattle around the back of my noggin for a long time.
Shortly before I moved to LA, I met the woman who kept house for a neighbor lady. She was sweeping when I went out to check the mail. Although our talk was brief, I could tell the energy she put forth was the strongest I knew I’d ever seen coming from a woman of color. Seemed to me she should have been running a country, not sweeping a driveway. That afternoon, I watched as she sat, head held high, in the back seat of the big Cadillac as the neighbor lady drove them out of the garage and onto the street. I wondered what they talked about on the way home and decided it was probably nothing. I asked my mother whose idea it was for her to sit in the back. “I can only guess,” she said.
Last night, I heard a TV pundit talk about how hopeful he was. That this time felt different. Different because the protests continue. Different because all races are participating. And I think he’s right. This will get a lot better. Thank God. But I wish I had more faith in my fellow man. I mean, I do have faith. But to a point. The thing we have to remember while we’re all pushing forward – and we should continue to push – hard – is some folks just aren’t born to be self-reflective. And they never will be. And why God put them here, I guess, is the same reason he puts snakes, skeeters and cockroaches.
This will get better, but it will never get great. Because ‘great’ means something else these days. I used to believe the racist folks had to die out, that it was something learned from their parents and once they died, then whew, we’re done! But there will always be someone teaching. And someone listening. When I was twelve, I watched one of the highly respected deacons at our church remove his family from the sanctuary when he spotted a black woman who’d come to sit in on the revival. A hundred years after women got the right to vote, they’re still fighting for equality. Same sex marriage wasn’t passed until 50 years after Stonewall. Black people didn’t get the right to vote until one hundred years after they were freed from slavery! Why do white people/men/straight people/religious wing nuts have to be so mean?
Some of the New Age philosophies talk about heaven being here on earth one day when we all eventually become enlightened. And I hope that’s true. But for now, we all have to be here together in our varying degrees of mindfulness. Some believe in reincarnation. That we all have to start from ignorance and keep coming back, keep evolving. And some are believed to be early in their cycle with not a lick of self-reflection. Seems to me if white people finally did heal their thoughts about people of color, they’d still need someone else. Maybe get Elon Musk to bring us some aliens from Mars so we’ll have somebody – ANYBODY – to keep under our thumbs. Something to keep us feeling superior, so those hound dogs under the porch become gargoyles and that car on cinder blocks a golden carriage.
This time is different, they say. For me, it was a video I stumbled upon online somewhere. I didn’t even know who it was. Some famous person, I’m sure. Doesn’t matter. What matters is he is black, his wife, who is white, is seated next to him on the sofa. Their child on his lap. They are both holding up their hands, ten fingers. A voice says, “Has been followed in a store because of their race.” He takes down a finger. The wife does not. “Has feared for their lives when pulled over by law enforcement.” He takes down another finger. The wife doesn’t. You get the picture, until he’s run out of fingers and his wife still holds all ten of hers up.
We all – well, those of us who have it in us to be moved, have the moment that makes it different for us. That was mine.
Soon after I lost my mother to lung cancer, I heard about a Hollywood actress, one of the most unlikeable in the industry, losing her father to lung cancer as well. I was astonished to find myself crying. “Why am I crying for this mean-assed person I’ve never met?” I remember asking myself. But it was the recognition of myself in her. Kinship through hard times.
But this time is different. We have to find a kinship in someone with whom we may not have shared the same hardships. And if we haven’t found the moment that so moves us, we have to keep looking. So many times we get into the habits of ingesting only material that mirrors us. “Ugh, no,” you say to your mate while scrolling through Netflix, “I’m not gonna watch another movie about slavery/race riots/lesbians/old people having sex.” I’d love to challenge myself to watch one movie or read one book a month that isn’t about me. And not one about black folks making white folks’ lives better – or their stories told through our eyes. We have to make another movie, write another book. And that movie has to be real. And it has to be where white people really help black people.
By showing up and being self-reflective.
The folks with no capacity for self-reflection will say, “What about MY race/great-grandaddy who was a good cop/ability to digest beans better than anyone else? And what about the looters? Did you see the looters? God almighty there were looters!!!” I get it. I have friends in law enforcement and I want them to be safe and respected. And there are still neighborhoods where I can’t walk at 3 in the morning holding my partner’s hand without getting jumped. There are folks in the current administration working hard to take the rights from women, the LGBT community, and whoever else they can think of. But this one isn’t mine. I may have a same-sex mate, but I’m still a white man. It’s not about my trials. Not this time.
I was in an office the other day when a white girl I know rolled her eyes and said, “Pleeeeease don’t let there be another march on my way home today…and if there is, then let there be police. This just needs to stop. And I need there to be police on every corner so I can get home.” Someone in the next office stuck their head in, attempting to enlighten, but I knew it would fall on deaf ears as I could see the lack of self-reflection in her eyes. Right before she rolled them again. “Make it stooooop,” she moaned again.
And yet it is about us – if you’re talking about our ability to put ourselves in another man’s shoes. More than the time we saw George Wallace be the devil himself. More than Emmett Till. Or Selma. Or Rodney King. The self-reflective people have to show up. Fight like hell the cult leaders of today. And vote like our lives depend on it.
I was walking down the street the day after the looting here in Santa Monica. I was about to pass a low-income apartment complex. Three young black men were gathered out front, laughing at something-or-other. Something popped like gunshot but was probably a leftover firecracker from the protests the day before. We were all still pretty rattled. I heard something in my head, a feeling of unease with everything else that had been going on. One of the men chased another with a bottle rocket- the firecracker must have been them. I challenged myself to listen to myself – to make some sorry-assed attempt to correct anything I needed. I kept walking. They were laughing harder. One slapped the other on the back. I noticed the slapper had one of the best smiles I’d seen on anyone in a while. I threw up a weak fist and nodded. The one with the killer smile stopped and did the same. And that was it. Kids, fireworks, acknowledgement.
This afternoon, I was in a line of traffic waiting to get on the freeway when a car pulled out from in front of me and made a u-turn to go back the other way. I remembered the first time I ever got a ticket was doing the same thing on Wilshire when I was in my 20’s. I saw the man making the u-turn was African-American, about the same age when I received my citation. He looked cautiously in both mirrors as he broke the law. Then he turned all the way around and looked behind him just to be sure. I realized there was more concern in his eyes as ever had to have been in mine all those years ago.
Here’s the thing. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am far from perfect. But I make an oath before everyone to at least continue to make an attempt to be self-reflective. To be aware. To help when I can. We still have to live in a world with the self-involved. Lord knows I’ve been accused of being the same. And many times those accusers have been right.
Another man’s shoes. That’s all it is.