Black & White

Published in Central Penn Business Digest, 8/90

New Orleans in June. The sun goes down but the temperature never does. You can’t even call what they have there humidity–you need a whole new word. Somehow, and I think it must be part of an ongoing conspiracy on the part of the transit system employees, I, and six other painfully-white tourist types, have just been dumped out of a trolley car at the end of the St. Charles line. Expecting to ride back into town immediately, we were unceremoniously told to get off and wait for the next car. The neighborhood, to put it politely, probably doesn’t appear in any tourist brochures. As the single dim headlight shrinks to a point and disappears back down the boulevard, I look around to survey our situation.
There’s a guy, his wife and two kids. They look uncomfortable. There’s a women with her little girl. I walk off the traffic island and across the street to a drug store, figuring to pick up some things I need. When I return a black man is panhandling the woman with the kid. She looks panicked. I move a little closer. He heads for me.
I turn him down and he heads for the guy with the family, who digs in his pocket. Then he heads back for me. What started out as a routine, after-dinner tourist cruise, is about to turn into a forty-minute mini-drama worthy of Tennessee Williams authorship. But then, like humidity, there is no word like “routine” in the New Orleans patois.
The man doesn’t like me because I won’t look down when I talk to him like the rest of
the people did. They were scared. I’m thinking. He’s got a bag of Doritos and he smells like cheap booze. But he’s a relatively young man and powerfully built. We’re toe to toe, eye to eye. As he spits out hypothetical questions and answers them himself – “Whatchou do if some brothers come over here and beat the _ out of you? Would I help you. Sure I would. But you’d never help me!” – little pieces of Doritos land on my face and arms, sticking to the sweat. We’re in it now, I can’t brush them off. I can’t flinch.
Nothing I say makes him happy. On the contrary. I try to think fast. Try to keep this
from escalating. One part of my brain planning ahead, one working on answering him as calmly as a can. Something inside of me won’t let me show fear, but the calmer I stay the madder he gets. The verbs change from “beat” to “kill,” the guy is really getting wound up. And I’m starting to feel my own ire rise as the insult and invective becomes ever more pointed and personal. I find a target for a long-unpracticed karate punch and concentrate on it in case he pulls a knife. My big worry is that a crowd of similarly angry young men will be drawn by his shouting. And then, suddenly, he’s gone. After another 20 minutes a trolley finally arrives.
It’s a long ride back. Funny, I ‘m not shaken. I have no animosity toward that man. Instead I’m moved by an intense curiosity about the forces, brought to bear at that little sector of the cosmos, which made him, and me, act the way we did. I consider the two centuries of hate and prejudice directed at blacks. I consider seriously what Louis Farrakhan says about genocide–For what had I seen there before me but the shell of a man?–and think anew about all those things we Conservatives reject as so patently un-American. Like quotas and affirmative action.
Just another trade show day in New Orleans. Just another in an increasingly long string of intense Crescent City experiences I’ve had over the years. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the food. Maybe it’s the Voodoo. But the place does things to your mind. And I think they’re mostly good things.

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