Note: THIS IS NOT MY WRITING. The original author of this node, GentlemanJim, deleted it when they left this site but I met with them in Summer 2008 and was granted permission to repost it. This is from a text-only cache, links were not preserved. I'm not trying to farm upvotes but I do think this should remain part of this site's legacy and ask the editors to do the minimum necessary to keep it out of Node Heaven. Original node_id=1874808. Noting also the Cimmerian first derivative.
It took me back to when I was likewise young, naive, and Canadian, and it had a great impact on me. - JellyfishGreen
Aspects of American race relations that may be new to you (thing) by GentlemanJim
Thu Mar 29 2007 at 6:38:22
C! info: 20 C!s given by: eien_meru, liveforever, joes3029, sloebertje, Albert Herring, Chras4, Dreamvirus, Jack, Angela, creases, cbustapeck, ascorbic, Sontra, jclast, Palpz, ponder, Scribe, FredPenner, Heisenberg, decagon
I had been a fan of Poppy Z. Brite for quite some time. And, as a child, my mother had purchased a copy of the famous "Who's on First" routine by Abbott and Costello for me to enjoy. Part of that radio broadcast included a warm, wonderful rendition of "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans", covered by a woman whose name I now forget.
What it amounted to was the fact that [in 1997] I was at a loose end between contracts, reading the former and listening to the latter and had very little money, but was burned out. So on the spur of a moment type whim, I'd decided I was going to throw a week's worth of clothes into a knapsack and take the first Greyhound to New Orleans. I decided this at 11:35 pm. Within half an hour I'd walked to the Greyhound terminal, ticket in hand, and we were off.
The makeup of the bus on the Canadian side of the border was 100% Caucasian. When we crossed over in Detroit, the most hostile border crossing I've ever encountered (Officer: "Where are you going?" Me: "New Orleans." *no answer* "New Orleans, Lousiana?" "Why?" "On vacation." "Why there? Why not somewhere else, like WHERE YOU CAME FROM.") it became 80% Caucasian, 20% Black.
In Chicago, it was suddenly 99% Black, 1% Caucasian. Namely, me and everyone else. And as people came on the bus, they were laughing, carrying on, all friendly, bringing food and baggage, and when they saw me, they quietened down. Sat down as if in church, looking straight ahead. Kids were shushed and silenced with bug-eyed scowls and hushed voices.
From Detroit, Michigan to rural Alabama, we rode in silence. Complete, dead silence, as if some great tragedy had occurred and nobody had any idea what to say. I realized completely this was somehow my fault, and had no clue how to respond.
We passed what I realized after a while were cotton fields. I took out a camera and started taking photographs out the window. This to them was akin to taking pictures of snow in Canada - the sure sign of a tourist, because the exercise would be pointless to anyone else.
"Where you all from that you ain't nevah seen no cotton?" the woman sitting across from me said, daring to defy the taboo of speaking or making any sound whatsoever.
"Canada." I said matter-of-factly, and it was like a dam had burst. People got up, started talking, children were told it was okay to play in the aisles, food was taken down from overhead bins and shared. The bus came to life.
I had no idea what to make of it.
"Well I ain't never seen cotton neither" she said, prompting the woman in front of me to stand suddenly, wheel and say angrily "Nigger, your family picked cotton." The word nigger, a STRONG word almost unspeakable to myself, was dropped with a casualness and a hidden venom, like an iron fist in a velvet glove, that I actually startled back.
"My family ain't never pick no cotton. Maybe your family did, but nobody I ever knew picked no cotton!" At this the woman started to make her way into the aisle with a look on her face that was clear as day: we are going to fight, and you are going to lose. The other woman stood up and moved her child out of harm's way. My God. I'd somehow started a fight. I was just minding my own business. Help.
I suddenly interjected with "Is it in season, or does it grow year round? I'm sorry to ask, I have no clue about the history of the area..." which deflected the ire of both women, who stood down with a careful deflation that ceded victory and a "she blinked first" to neither. They filled me in gladly on the Roots-inspired Cliffs Notes version of the antebellum history of the region. Neither one knew anything about the plant or its cultivation. At the next stop I asked very politely of a lovely and regal elderly black Baptist lady if I might sit with her at one of the tables to eat, and offered her some of what I was eating. She was obviously too well-mannered to let her surprise show too much, and genuinely flattered. I didn't understand until months later that such a gesture would have been unheard of even four months before I made it.
At some nameless one horse town, another Caucasian got on. I recognized his Klan tattoos up one arm and the Nazi insignia up the other, having lived through the skinhead years of the 1980s and learning what to avoid. He lurched his fat, sweating, toothless carcass up the aisle as if he owned the bus, ignoring everyone but myself, giving me a searching look/appeal to solidarity which I ignored. This was not my tribe. Not by a long shot. And his presence had effectively killed any joy in that bus. It was once again a hearse, everyone sitting to attention as if it was a church service or funeral. A white church service.
The journey bored him after forty five minutes, and he disappeared into the tiny chemical toilet at the back of the bus. Soon the distinctive odour of cigarette smoke became increasingly obvious. According to various rules and the law, the driver was supposed to stop the bus immediately and deposit the offending passenger at the side of the road. And yet we continued, as fifteen minutes went by. He lurched from the bathroom evidently drunk, and the odour of a recently finished cigarette was counterpointed by the rank perfume of cheap whiskey.
"Were you smoking on the bus, sir?"
"I ain't got no cigarettes so howm I supposed to be smoking, NIGGER?"
At that moment I would come to realise a significant truth when a black man would later argue to white liberals in a Seattle cafe that there damn well WAS a difference between a black man and a white man saying that word. The bus driver said nothing and carried on with his business. The redneck was satisfied that his put down put the driver in his place, and threw himself back into his seat.
When we got to Mobile, Alabama, everyone got off the bus as required. As I was leaving (the redneck had left first) he stopped me politely and asked "Sir, may I ask you if that gentleman was smoking on the bus?" I said "Calling him a gentleman would be a stretch, but yes." He said, "I'm sorry to ask you this again, but sir, was he or was he not smoking on the bus." I said "Yes, he was indeed."
When the man tried to get back on the bus, there were two employees of Greyhound who impeded his passage. I saw them talk to him gently and saw him get visibly angrier by the second. He then proceeded to stomp his feet and obviously challenge them to a fistfight.
Two Mobile, Alabama police officers were summoned. They made their way onto the bus and found me, ignoring all other passengers. Both of them were large, imposing white men.
"Excuse me sir, but the gentleman outside they say was smoking in the lavatory of this bus." My, my, aren't we genteel.
"That's right, he was." Stunned silence. The mood darkened. Jesus Christ, where was I, Mississippi Burning?
"I don't think you understand. They want him to have to buy another ticket, and it's their word against his. Was he or was he not smoking on this bus?"
"Yes, indeed he was. Everyone on this bus smelled it, including myself, and the smoke alarm was triggered, which is that light up front which was blinking at the time." There was a white hot, adrenaline high tension in the air, the kind before a riot or major fight.
"Son, I'm gonna ask you one last time. Was he or was this gentleman not smoking on this bus." This is your out, kid. Take it.
"Yes, he was in fact smoking, officer." Fuck you, pig.
He drew himself up to his full height, then put his face in mine. "You ain't from 'round here, are you, boy?" I stifled a laugh. He was as serious as cancer, cliched though his use of words was.
"No, I'm visiting."
"Uh huh, where from."
"Let me see your passport."
To his surprise, I had one. I showed it to him. He took a long look, then wrote down my name.
"Well, Mr. Canada Boy, let me give you a word of advice. Don't you never come back to Mobile Alabama, (and here he hissed the last words directly into my face) or I will kill you."
I never spoke truer words than the ones I did now. "Wasn't counting on it. My ticket's for New Orleans. I'm only passing through. If you're telling me this as an officer of the law I'll be happy to schedule an alternate Greyhound route back." Didn't even blink. Maintained eye contact. Fuck it. You're gonna put me in a shallow grave, at least I'm gonna go down keeping my cool.
He blinked first. He stood up, dejected and disgusted, with one final warning parting glance. The officers left. They spoke to the Greyhound staff, who wanted to lead the offender away. But the hillbilly scroggin instead tore off to my window and pounded on the bus underneath it. "I'LL KILL YOU! COME ON OUT HERE YOU COCK SUCKER!!!!", etc. etc. etc.
I yelled back. "Say hi to Uncle Dad, you incestuous sack of shit. If you're the fucking master race, miscegenation is progress. Seig Heil THIS, mother fucker!" (Flipped the kickstand, right hand upraised.)
The bus driver took off, nearly running over two people in the process. I didn't realise at this point how much I probably owed him for doing that. The police did not give chase. Thankfully. I didn't realise this was a possibility until I saw the relief on the face of the others that this had not taken place.
I turned back to the rest of the bus, staring at me with saucer eyes. One guy shook his head and said "Boy, you either crazy, or stupid, or you got BALLS THIS BIG!"
We made it to Mississippi, the entire bus mentally composing the story they'd retell to relatives about the event. And as I stepped out of the bus I smelled one of the best barbeque joints I've ever smelled. Nothing like slow roasted pork shoulder simmering in a rich sauce on a hot humid evening. It was a tin shack with a faded promotional Coca Cola sign, and a large black guy with a faded T-shirt and a shaven head standing in front. Blues music, played live, filtered from the building and I knew then and there a cold one and a pulled pork sandwich would be perfect. As I grabbed my bags to get off to stay there for the night, a hand grabbed my shoulder from behind.
I turned, it was one of the men from the bus. "Don't go in there."
"Look again." He pointed to the bald black guy, who'd responded to my evident interest in the place by grabbing a metal baseball bat. "You walk in there, you never walk out again. You understand?" I didn't say anything. "It work both ways."
"It's 1997." I said, shaking my head, talking as much about the events in Mobile as I was here.
"I know" he said sadly. I know. Because now I have the beginning of an understanding of what it means to know. "Come on, I'll help you with your things." We got on the bus together.
A few months later I had moved to Memphis and was downtown on a significant anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. A march was being held to commemorate the anniversary date of the fateful march that led to the sniper assassination of Dr. King. Far from the raucous, angry and tension filled original, this march was solemn. And folks came out of their stores not to heckle or cheer, but to stand and pay their respects.
The lone exception was an old white woman, who screamed out at everyone "None of you understand! These niggers was carrying on! They weren't working! They were clogging the streets and breaking the law! That nigger was a troublemaker! Do you hear me?" And here the word "nigger" had no venom. It was worse. It was simply "other", the same way as you'd describe a herd of cattle or a nest of rats. But nobody was listening to her, which made her all the more angry and vocal. Because not only were the marchers ignoring her and staring straight ahead, so were the white onlookers paying their respects. It was the bus all over again, people staring straight ahead, saying nothing, seeing nothing. Eventually an embarassed looking younger white man ran up and spirited her away, still cursing and protesting.
I learned a LOT on that trip. Much of which I wished I didn't have to.