In the early 90’s, I dated a man who was a bit older than I was. By about a decade. He was a good guy. He had been in the Marines, lived overseas, been married, had some children, and been divorced. He had a lot of life experience. I, however, had none.
But he was, as I said, a good guy, and his kids were sweet, and they came to visit every other weekend or so.
After we had dated for about a year, his parents were preparing to celebrate a big wedding anniversary, and the whole family was planning a celebration in their hometown of Chicago, so just before the big day we loaded his kids up in the car and drove there. From Florida. To Chicago. It took about 20 hours.
So after a night of driving, we pulled up to a Waffle House in Indiana at dawn. But for some reason in Indiana they call them Waffle & Steak. But it’s the same restaurant, layout, uniforms, and menu. And when we walked in and sat down, the waitress silently set out our silverware and stood there, pen and pad in hand. I prompted everyone for their drink order, which she jotted down and went off to prepare.
While she was preparing our drinks, I asked the children what they would be ordering. Because I had worked at a Waffle House, I knew all the questions to ask so our waitress would not have to…”Would you like any ham, bacon, or sausage with that?…Do you want hash browns?…Would you like anything in your hash browns?”
When she returned with our drinks, I recited our order to her. She walked away to go turn the order in. She had not yet spoken a word to us.
I stirred cream into my coffee and took a sip. It was wretchedly bitter and burned. I turned my head and looked at the pot from which it had been poured. It was a quarter of the way full. There were perhaps two other parties in the restaurant. This coffee had to be an hour old.
When she returned to place condiments on our table, I politely asked if I could have a cup after she brewed a fresh pot. She mutely took my cup, walked to the other end of the restaurant where the other coffee maker resided, and poured a cup from that pot, which was also near the bottom, and equally as bitter.
Our food was brought to us, which we ate. The bill presented, which we paid. We even left a tip.
I was pensive following the encounter. I couldn’t fathom such rude behavior. “That really bothered you, baby,” my boyfriend said when we were on the road again.
“I asked her for fresh coffee. Why would she just go and get me more old coffee from the other pot??”
Some years later, with that relationship far in my rearview, I remembered our rude treatment and had a realization that stopped me in my tracks.
I’m white. My boyfriend was a Mexican American. He had been married to an African-American lady. The children were bronze-skinned and curly-haired. Our little group was, in the words of several bigots I’ve encountered through the years, every color of the rainbow.
Ah, yes. It all fell into place. Why else would a waitress, whose very livelihood depends on the way she treats her customers, during a lull in business, while waiting on very non-labor intensive party, not say hello, goodbye, or thank you?
If only I had known. If I could have seen past my 21-year-old idealism. If I would have understood that the expectation I had that the world would hold my own world view was quite unreasonable to an alarming number of people. I would have…what? Demand her respect? Courtesy? Brought it to the children’s attention by causing a scene, hurling accusations?
Well, at least I would have not left a tip.
Burned into my memory is a tearful conversation I had with my father after the particulars about th e man with whom I had a relationship unfolded. His concern was not with the age difference. His concern was with the race difference. He was particularly concerned with the heritage of the children, those “mixed race” children. We stood in his shop, bickering about what he thought was wrong and what I thought was no one else’s concern. My father, who had always occupied the highest pedestal in my world, was unrecognizable to me in his singular hatred of mixing the races.
“I’m not saying any race is better,” was his defense, “I’m just saying they are not supposed to mix.”
When it became clear to him that my relationship status would not change based on his desires, he drove home one final hurt. “Well, you do what you want, but I don’t ever want his kids coming around my kids. I don’t want my kids to think that that’s right.”
I’m sure I made a final statement about the innocence of these children, undeserving of such hatred, and then stormed out, driving home in tears, hot, burning tears of fury and pain, near hysteria, noticing but not caring about those people who turned to stare at me at the red lights.
I am one person, and I had one relationship, lasting eighteen months, with a man of a different race, who had children of yet another race, and yet I had two achingly painful and infuriating experiences, one with a stranger, and one with my own father, that are forever burned in my psyche. I fume to recall them now.
And if I, a caucasian female, can tell of these two experiences, what experiences might a person of color tell?
The good fight has been fought, and the good fight must continue to be fought. My hope and my prayer is that slowly, so very slowly, as we raise new generations of children, that the older generation is dying out, and with them, the seething cancer of bigotry, and though that cancer may flare up, it will be quickly be extinguished, so that each generation becomes further and further separated from that rot.
And I say thank you to Rev. Martin Luther King, whose victories were not just victories for some, but for all, so that our society becomes more unbound with each passing generation. You are, Rev. King, one of my greatest heroes.
EDIT: As I look over this blog, I see two things that I did not make clear. First, I do not ask for anyone to die, but for old ideas to die. Second, my father’s notions transformed through the years. He is and always has been a wonderful man, and his feelings have evolved. Perhaps this is serendipitous, as my little sister gave birth to a baby whose father is of American and Mexican parentage.