For us aging white people you have to understand that we grew up in a white family, likely on a white street, and possibly went to an all-white school. Along the way we either got to know members of other races, "learned" to love them or hate them, or possibly stayed in Whiteville till we died and went to be with white Jesus.
Born in the 1950s, I was raised in a white Philadelphia suburb. It wasn't healthy, but valued. Young me once asked Mom if colored people lived in colored houses. It wasn't such a pathetic question; this was back when life was still largely black and white.
My parents were very white, but we often had black company. I'd just like to reflect on a few of the African Americans I've had the good fortune to know. This does stretch over a period of years, from negro to colored to black to African-American. (I wonder what we were to them?) I learned from them all.
My apologies in advance for offensive content.
In the 1960s my Dad worked at the Fels Naphtha Soap Company, in an old brick factory along Cobbs Creek on the edge of Philadelphia. I don't know what he did, but he shared a brick office with a negro, and they got along well. They ate lunch together every day, Fridays in the company cafeteria.
I knew his officemate because he fixed cars out of his garage on nights and weekends, and my Dad always took our cars to him. I called him Uncle Cliff, in part because his name was Cliff, in part because it made both of us smile.
He came to dinner twice, drove the first time, took the bus that stopped down the corner the second time (his car wasn't working). That second evening was explosive.
Mom was clearing the plates, discussing her desert offerings. Uncle Cliff was clearly quiet, and Dad asked him what was wrong. None of us were prepared for what we heard.
Last time he parked on our busy narrow street, there was a guy standing up on his porch.
"You can't park there. Its reserved for white people. Get outa here," the man said, then went into his house. Cliff never mentioned it.
My mother asked why.
"Well you just get used to it," He sighed.
This day he was walking up our street and again the man was on his porch. As Cliff passed, he heard "Go home! Get outa here! We don't want your type here!"
My father was born in 1913, never finished high school and was a good person but not very good about managing his feelings. He turned red, and calmly said, "Which house, Cliff?"
"Don't let it ruin a good night," Cliff said.
"What house?" Dad repeated. "The one with the green awning?"
Cliff cautiously nodded. My father got up, went to the kitchen to refill his water glass, set it on the table, and walked out the front door.
My mother panicked. Clint tried to calm her down. "He's gonna do what he's gonna do Florence - gotta have faith."
We each stared at slices of peach pie that sat before us. None of us touched them. Where is he?
An hour passed.
One of the kids I played with on the street was Larry. His father, Eugene, was known as Yip. This made no sense to my Dad who assumed he never heard it right, so whenever they were talking between back yards, Dad called him Rip, Dip or 'ip. Cliff's man on the porch was Yip.
Let me say it again - an hour passed. We heard the front door open and there was Yip, towering over the dining room table.
"Shit," my young brain said.
"Cliff, I'm Yip. Jack (my Dad) has been telling me about you. You didn't deserve any of that. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
Cliff extended his hand; Yip took it and bawled like a baby,
Dad pulled the fourth dining room chair up to the table and put my slice of pie and fork in front of him.
"You don't hate me?" he asked Cliff.
"I don't hate anyone," Cliff said. "Why do you hate me?"
"I work at Westinghouse with a group of all negros ... they ignore me or treat me like shit every day. I...I just hate them. I don't hate you, Cliff. I was so wrong. I'm such a jerk," Yip said.
"I forgive you," Cliff said.
'If the situation was the other way 'round, I don't know if I could,' Yip thought
Cliff said, "You can walk down my street whenever you want. People might assume you're lost and offer to help, and they always will."
Yip broke down again.
My dad said, "Eat your pie then its time to go. I'm not as understanding as my friend, but I do know who I'd rather have as a neighbor."
Yip didn't say another word, got up, nodded to Cliff and walked out.
"You've got quite a Dad," Uncle Cliff said to me.
Yes, I did. It was quite a day. I was proud. I don't know why Cliff never came to dinner again. I miss him. He did show me that people can have a dark side that you may never see, as well as a sweet one.
My most recent dinner of interest was just after my 68th birthday. I had a stroke and ended up in in-patient rehab for about a month. My roomie was a good-humored black man, Alan. He was in his late 60s as well, with an absolute angel of a wife. Alan and I talked a lot, laughed a lot, and didn't hesitate to take care of each other when we needed to.
One evening his two younger brothers wanted to join him for dinner. Alan and I each ordered one extra dinner so they could eat with him.
They pretty much ignored me, reminisced with their bro about growing up in Trenton, New Jersey. I don't know if anyone in their neighborhood was white. They were immersed in their own "culture".
I wasn't part of the reminiscences; I was just a curious fly on the wall.
They lived very different lives than I. For their young lives the respect you got depended on your street reputation. Your quality of life in Trenton was built with your fists. No guys would mess with Alan's sister because of his reputation. He could knock someone out in one punch.
'How do you knock someone out in one punch?' You may ask.
Apparently, there were always drunks around. Neighborhood homeless drunks. The drunk who lived under the overpass. All black men. It wasn't clear if they'd rent them or just use them as practice bags. It was apparently ok to leave a drunk out cold on the sidewalk. The more who watched the better. It wasn't about the drunk at all. No hard feelings, eh? Have a drink.
It was perhaps the most real peek I ever had into one kind of poor black neighborhood. Terrifying. I didn't like these people at all. I held my tongue. They were in their 50s talking about their teens and 20s - 40 years ago from 2020 makes it 1980. Hopefully it was a very different time.
I didn't think less of them, it was how they lived, but so different. So much black on black violence. Theirs had not been a very nice world, but their goal was survival, not nice. They gave me a peek into another world.
I started to be more aware of their worlds and white people worlds. Then there were the politicians and shysters I knew, who were white but lived in different ugly worlds that I didn't want to know about. Would it have been so bad if I never knew any of them? Could I have hid in my little naïve white world forever? I think many white people did but that option was denied me, You can't return to innocent.
Back to 1970. For two summers during my college years, I arrived each morning at the General Electric factory in Philly in a beautiful 1964 Triumph TR 7 convertible. I had run into a guy from my school, one year older, at GE. It was his car. He agreed to swing by my house and pick me up every morning. I paid for gas. He didn't tell me in his two seater he already had another passenger - I learned this the first morning. Two seats, both occupied. I tied myself to the small trunk like a dead deer. Joke. I just climbed into the small space behind the seats. It was decadent fun that morning, but miserable on rainy days when the top went up.
Then there was HIM. HE had a permanent job there. We were both the same age. In the summer, GE asked younger employees to work an extra 4 to 8 hours for as many days as we'd like. He and I both wanted the extra money (time and a half!), so we would often work 16 hour days.
We first met in the cafeteria. He sat across from me and said hi. My response was "holy shit." I didn't feel bad. It was the early 70s, when you could walk up to a pregnant girl, pat her belly and ask when she was due.
I assumed that "holy shit" was something he'd heard often, considering what he was. Maybe I was very wrong. He just smiled.
He was the only black albino I'd ever met, ever seen. His skin was that of a white man who never saw the sun, covered with pink freckles; his eyes, with no pigments, were pink, as was his hair. Still his features were those of a colored man.
"What do you like best?" he asked. Tough question.
"Pepsi!" I answered.
"Smart ass," he replied. "But seriously what on this unique body do you like the best?"
"Well, I'm of course jealous of the pink afro," I said.
He smiled. "But ..."
"But the eyes, set in such a kind face, are a bit demonic. I like that. Scary movie scary. I'm envious."
"Never heard that one before," he grinned. And from that day on, we ate lunches and dinners and second lunches together and found hiding places to sneak in half hour naps every evening.
On that first day we did introduce ourselves, promptly forgot each other's names, and were too foolish to acknowledge it; he called me "White" and I called him "Pink."
We spent much of our time comparing lives. I was in college, an only child living with my parents. He made me tell him about his life, so I guessed: lived within walking distance of the factory with his mom; was homeless before he got the GE job. I also didn't know what he did there. I was a mediocre forklift driver. His clothes were greasier than mine; same ones every day.
After about three weeks he asked me if I wanted to know how much of his life I got right.
I suggested 50%.
"By how much?"
I was embarrassed to be white.
He had an apartment in center city. He had gone to a private school in Vermont.
His father was someone I worked for! A welder by day, violinist for the Philadelphia Orchestra by night. His father called me "College Boy". He explained to me how we were at two ends of a spectrum which were not very different.
"So, what are you studying, College Boy?"
"Think you'll get a Ph.D.?" I hadn't thought about it, but I liked the science, so yes, if I could.
"You'll be a chemist! Maybe even a well known one. Who you are will be determined by your title. Nothing wrong with that. Your title will
open doors for you."
"Who am I? What do I do? A welder? I don't really care. I have a good job that allows me to take care of my family, and to do what I
really love - play music."
"Two roads to the same place, to get to the point that you can do what you love. So, don't ever look down on anyone because of their job.
Great, he spoke Italian too. I called him Uncle Capisce.
But back to Pink. Apparently for our first few weeks he'd always change into factory clothes before entering the cafeteria, but eventually he just wore his normal work clothes - a suit. He was an administrative trainee in the front office.
I needed this reality check.
I asked him to come over for dinner one Sunday, and he eagerly accepted. I told my parents only that I'd invited a friend over for dinner, hoping they wouldn't embarrass me too much.
The doorbell rang and I took him back into the kitchen where Mom was cooking.
"Mom, this is my friend from work."
She blurted out a motherly version of "holy shit," then ran her fingers through his hair and oohed and aahed. He laughed, enjoying how easily she yielded to the Pink Experience.
When I heard the toilet flush I ran upstairs, passing my father on the steps.
From up there, I could hear voices, then silence.
By the time I returned, Mom was alone in the kitchen. "Do you know how to make greens?" she asked.
I didn't answer. He was gone. Dad was gone. How can you lose two people in a row house? I checked the back yard and the front porch. Then I heard a loud crack. (suddenly a shot rang out.) I squeezed past my mother to the basement door. They were down there, shooting
"You dad is awesome," he said. showing me a few trick shots he'd already learned.
We had fun that evening, the four of us playing pool most of the night. He actually ran to the store after dinner and came back with all the fixin's to show her how make greens.
For my college summers I returned to GE, to overtime, and to spending time with total uniqueness.
I haven't seen him since my last day of work there. He gave me a small box, my graduation present. A shiny new Karmann Ghia key. I held it in silence.
"It's a Karmann Ghia key. Cool, eh?" he asked.
I stared at him. He changed the subject. It was a great "how stupid are you" gift.
I gave it to my best friend on his wedding day. I pray he will continue the tradition. It was just so good.
I had a thousand questions in my time with Pink. Did he suffer twice? As a black man and as some visual oddity?
The answer was neither. He chose to not participate in such silliness. Instead, he decided how people saw him.
He became bigger than life to people he met. No one had a preconceived notion about his type, so he projected a superstar aura. Neither of us ever defined it but I certainly experienced it, especially when he was in a coat and tie. He was a new species, a blank slate that only he wrote on. He was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. (sorta from the poem Invictus, also published under the title Song of a Strong Soul.)
My head keeps going back to Close Encounters. Did we dislike the aliens? Did they need Martian Lives Matter signs? Um, no.
If only humans had the decency to treat each other as aliens.