Monday, June 1, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 6c)

Picking up from 6b...

Lunches were included with the convention. The only problem was that the lunches were horrible. Well, that might not quite be fair. Maybe the food was good, but it was frozen, so who would know? Seriously, the first day, we all went and got our boxed lunch, which was fried chicken (and we thought that was awesome because we'd expected crappy bologna sandwiches or something), but, when we went to eat it, it was still frozen. None of us were happy.

The next day, the day of the elevator incident, Jeff decided that we were going out to lunch (and we discovered we were not a democracy despite being in Washington D.C.). Of course, we didn't know where anything was, but that wasn't a hindrance to Jeff. We would just walk until we found something!

Fortunately, the lunch break was rather long (like three hours? maybe four?), because that was also our sight-seeing time. So we walked and we saw bits of the city that we would never have seen on one of the bus tours and, finally, we found a place to eat.

It was a little burger joint; you know, one of those hole-in-the-wall kind of places owned by someone who knows how to cook. I mean really knows how to cook. We strolled in as if it was McDonald's. Which is to say that it wasn't McDonald's, and it wasn't McDonald's in the way that apples are not oranges. Because, see, Burger King and McDonald's are both oranges, and this was not that, and we were the only white people in the place. A relatively crowded place where every eye turned to stare at us when we walked in. Stared at us hard. Stared at us hard enough that we could feel it, which is saying a lot.

After a moment, they all turned away and ignored us just as hard as they had stared at us. We got in line. The ignoring was more uncomfort-making than the staring had been. Especially when we made it to the front of the line and they continued ignoring us. Then, they started taking orders from people behind us, and none of us knew what to say. I mean, it was obvious they knew we were there, and it was just as obvious that they were not going to acknowledge our presence.

Bob and the girl started nudging Jeff and whispering, "Let's just go." He kept saying, "No." One of them started in about being hungry, and I pointed out that we weren't going to have enough time to find another place to eat if we stayed for much longer. Jeff said he wasn't leaving without being served. It was all so very unreal. Almost like we didn't even exist. No, it was exactly like we didn't exist. It could have been right out of the Twilight Zone. Except the racist version.

Eventually, the lunch rush was over and there were no more people coming in. Eventually, we were the only ones standing there. Eventually, people started emptying out of the place, and we were still standing there. And Jeff wouldn't leave.

Jeff wouldn't leave!

But, eventually, the guy behind the counter gave in. I think we'd been standing there at least an hour at that point. He took our order, and we sat down to wait. They didn't actually make us wait an inordinate amount of time for the burgers.

You know what? All of it, all of the waiting, was worth it. To that point in my life, that was the best burger I'd ever had. By far. It was amazing, and it still occupies a mythical place in my mind. The mythical place of "best burger ever." We told them that, too, before we left. They actually looked gratified.

And we made it back to the convention center on time. Barely.

So the obvious point here is that racism can go both ways and, while that is a point, that is not the point. The point is that we would never have gotten away with what we did if we weren't white. No one threatened us. No one called us names. No one resorted to violence towards us. In an opposite circumstance, a group of black kids in a white establishment like that would have been forced to leave, if not through words then through actions.

It was an eye opening experience, to say the least, and a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten.

Now, the epilogue to the elevator incident:

After the "success" of our lunch outing, Jeff decided that we should walk back to the hotel from the convention center. Despite the points of not really knowing the way (he said, "How hard could it be? We just need to go toward the Capitol.") and not knowing how far it was (his logic was that it only took, like, five minutes by the Metro, so how far could it be?), we learned, again, how much not a democracy we were. After all, he was in charge. Right? So we walked...

And we walked...

And we walked some more. Somewhere in there, we stopped for food, but that went more smoothly than lunch had gone, and we walked some more.

We finally made it back to the hotel some time close to midnight. Only three-ish hours late. On the door, on all the doors, was a bulletin. Someone had set off the fire alarm in the hotel that morning (and after the incident with the actual fire at the other hotel, no one thought it was funny), and they were looking for the perpetrators -- there was a reward and everything -- so they could send them home at their own expense.

We were horrified.

Jeff started giving orders about how we shouldn't talk about the thing in the elevator and rushing us up to the room and, generally, making us more freaked out than we already were. Bob and I spent the rest of the trip with this fear poking the backs of our heads that we were going to get found out and sent home. And we didn't have any money to pay to be sent home! We'd worked and scraped to get enough money just to go on the trip. There was nothing left over!

Jeff, though, he was fine. See, unbeknownst to us, he went and did some asking around about it and found out the elevator thing was isolated to the elevator and what they were looking for was someone who had actually set off the hotel fire alarm and caused an evacuation until they figured out that it was a false alarm. Of course, it didn't occur to him to tell us that we had nothing to worry about. We didn't find that out until we were on our way home and one of us said, "Well, I guess we don't have to worry about getting sent home, now." He just laughed.
Yeah, thanks, Jeff.

16 comments:

  1. Oh my, I thought you were going to say that they wouldn't serve you at the restaurant. So glad to know it was your best burger ever.

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    1. JKIR,F!: Well, they tried not to. There is something to be said for perseverance.

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  2. It does go both ways and it's freaky to experience it.
    Glad you weren't responsible for the actual fire alarm.

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    1. Alex C: Oh, we were, too, even though it didn't matter by the time we found out.

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  3. I like the point you make, that racism isn't experienced the same way if you are white. Even there, in that restaurant, you were still in the majority, and Jeff and you all knew it: you came in there carrying with you the fact that you controlled the world, not the minorities.

    It's hard to feel powerless when all your friends control the levers that move the world.

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    1. Briane: Yeah, Jeff was secure in his -right- to be served no matter what the owner wanted (the rest of us weren't so secure). I'm sure the fact that he was from money gave him a different kind of awareness than the rest of us had. Not necessarily a correct awareness, just a different awareness.

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  4. What a story. Also, Briane already covered what I was thinking. Still, that must have been an unreal experience. I've been stared at before, but never blatantly ignored, and by a whole room full of people at that. That has to just be one of the strangest feelings.

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    1. ABftS: It was unreal. It was one of the only times in my life when I just had no idea of how to act or respond.

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  5. You're definitely right that a bunch of black kids could never get away with that. And ultimately, that is the core of racism, that white people have the ability to stand up against such rudeness and not get hurt (or worse!) for it. I've had people be rude to me because of my skin color, but I've never been in fear because of it.

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    1. Jeanne: And white "Americans" (USAians?) take that attitude all over the world. "I'm an American, and I'm better than you." Maybe France is the only place we don't get away with that? I don't know.

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  6. The first time I went in a burger place in D.C., it was 1979. We were the only white people--except the manager. I thought it was kind of freaky, but they served us. No problem. We went back later in the week.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: Now I'm going to wonder if it was the same place. Still, there is a lot of time for things to have changed from 1979 to 1985.

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  7. There's a good chance that you guys sticking it out then being complimentary maybe changed a little of the way they behaved next time this happened.

    Also, I'm glad you said racism works both ways and didn't use the term reverse racism. It's all just racism, no reverse about it.

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    1. Shannon: Yeah, racism works all the ways.

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  8. Tense stuff. But I've never had something that intense... well, I've had different kinds of racist stuff to deal with in Louisiana, but I blame that stuff on how the kids were raised over anything else.

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    1. Alex H: It's kind of easier to deal with in a place like LA, because it's right there in front of you. No one is shy about it. When it's all subtle and stuff, it's hard to know how to respond.
      (Not that I'm saying that was exactly subtle.)

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