Wednesday, November 15, 2006

caught by surprise

I had an unusual, even weird, experience the other day. I was on a mission to buy a new snowthrower for the coming winter season. Mary got it in her head that we needed a smaller, more easily handled machine so she could use it if necessary, the implication being that I might become too much more disabled to do the job myself as I always have done. That's not the weird part, though.

So I park my truck in the handicap space right at the front door of the dealer who sells the snowthrower I was looking for, grab my cane, and shuffle on into the store. I find the particualar machine I was looking for at the price I expected to pay (having done the necessary research online--am I a modern man or what?) and waited to get the attention of a salesman. There was one guy behind a counter tapping away at a computer. He paid me no mind. Another gray haired guy I suspected was the ranking salesman was jabbering on the phone and didn't acknowledge my presence. So I stood there looking bored and probably somewhat annoyed at the inattention I was getting.

Mr. Grayhaired Salesman finally hangs up the phone and looks in my direction. I point my cane at the snowthrower on display and say, "I'll take one of those." Instead of talking up the machine in question as he approached me, he said nothing, and when he got to me he proceeded to take the cane from my hand, turn it upside down and swing it like a golf club, making some inane comment about how I must get in a lot of practice with it and how it should have a hidden sword in the shaft or maybe be hollow so I could always have a ration of brandy on hand.

I was too startled at his audacity to make any kind of comment. He abruptly handed the cane/golfclub back to me and segued, apropo of nothing, into a rambling discourse on how he grew up at 17th and Lloyd Avenue and how his best boyhood friend, "who lived just a couple blocks away on 16th and Meinecke, ya know, came back for a visit last summer. He moved away a long time ago, his family went down south to Texas to get away from the cold, and he wanted to take a ride through the old neighborhood. I told him it probably wasn't a good idea the way the neighborhood changed and all that, ya know, but he wanted to do it anyway, so I went along. And ya know it was hot that day and we had the windows down and 'they' were all sitting on their porches hanging out on the corners, ya know, and musta been thinking what were we doin in their neighborhood. Gave me the creeps, ya know. They just watch you waiting for a chance to do somethin. We got outa there real quick, ya know."

A bit of explanation is in order here. We're talking about Milwaukee, which in recent studies has been shown to be the most segregated city of its size in the country. The area my new bigoted best friend was referring to is in the "inner city", the most densely African-American populated area. It is like any impoverished and forlorn area that you will find in any large city that has too much unemployment and the resultant too much crime. Destitution and despair replace the air that the rest of us breathe. It wasn't always that way, but it is now. A variety of social factors have conspired to make it so. That's not to offer an excuse for the condition of the city. It just is what it is.

I was dumbstruck. I was speechless. I was caught totally unaware by his discourse. Mind you, he wasn't ranting and raving. He was just making conversation the way a salesman will do. But his conversation was so inappropriate as to be shocking. I mumbled something about buying the snowthrower and he dismissed me to the guy behind the counter saying, "oh, Al will take care of you. Hey, Al, get one of these with the electric start ready for this guy." And he sauntered away oblivious to the shock he had imposed on me.

Had I been thinking quicker on my feet, I certainly should have, and would have, told him to take his prejudice and bigotry and shove them up his redneck ass, stomped out of the dealership and taken my business elsewhere. But, as I said, he caught me totally by surprise. My mind was on the shiney new machine I was looking for, not on some bigot's perception of the world. And I was still trying to understand how a person could walk up to me, snatch the cane from hand, and play with it without any apparent sense of the violation that was.

On the way home (with my new snowthrower in the truck) I tried to think of why that jerk felt it was ok to lay his assinine conversation on me. What made him feel it was alright to make such comments to me? Was it he way I was dressed? I was wearing my usual uniform of jeans, sweatshirt, jacket, and baseball cap. I know my cap didn't have KKK embroidered on it. My sweatshirt didn't say "property of Bigot U" decaled on the front. My jacket didn't have a redneck patch on it. Was it something in my demeanor that indicated to him that I would be receptive to his conversation? Was it that I was about his age that made him feel I would agree with him? Is my gray beard an indication that I harbor a secret bigotry. I'm at a loss here. And I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't react the way my heart and mind tell me I should have.

All I know is that everytime I use that new snowthrower I will think of that guy and his startling behaviour. And I will feel just as bad about it each time.

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