Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Little Things

As author and journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault wrote in her insightful foreword to It's The Little Things, journalist Lena Williams' illuminating non-fiction book on race relations, published back in 2000, sometimes in this life,   "It really IS the little things."

It's a great read about perspectives on race by the way and you can pick up a used copy on for under five bucks.

I wanted to get "a little thing" off my chest, so bear with me.

Yesterday morning I made my way over to the offices of Mercer County Connection, a non-descript office located in a rather typical single story brick shopping center just off route 33 and Paxson Avenue in Hamilton about five minutes from my apartment.

The gigantic "Super Acme" where I do most of my grocery shopping (excellent produce section) is in the same shopping center, so I drive by the MCC office all the time.

My purpose was to attend a free, one-hour seminar on wills, executors and durable power of attorney being given by Susan Knispel, the Supervising Attorney for the Mercer County Legal Services Project For the Elderly - an outreach project formed in 1980 that provides free legal assistance to Mercer County New Jersey residents who are 60 years of age or older.

Now as you know I may bitch about Governor Chris Christie and the taxes in Jersey, but things like this seminar are one example of the range of government services and the quality of life here in Hamilton - check the price on a one hour consultation with an attorney who specializes in wills and you'll see what I mean.

Our family is in the process of updating my mother's will to make sure that her specific requests and wishes for her medical treatment choices and end-of-life medical care options are all very clearly spelled out in the event she becomes incapacitated.

For any of you folks of a certain age, you don't need an attorney to fill out an Advanced Medical Directive to spell out your wishes for your medical care; the form is available to download online for free and all you need to do is fill it out and get it notarized or have two witnesses sign it.

Anyway, when I arrived, there was an elderly Asian woman standing outside the door intently studying a brochure and as I walked in I was surprised to see the room almost filled to capacity with about 35 to 40 seniors and a few older adults who looked recently retired.

Aside from a middle-aged African-American woman seated behind a large "welcome desk" on the right side of the room and a young Indian woman who later came in late (more on that in a moment), I was the only person of color in the room and was by far the youngest.

The room was relatively silent as the above-mentioned attorney giving the presentation was standing behind a small desk set up at the front of the room and people were waiting for her to begin; I noticed there were still some seats left and I began to make my way to one of them.

"Excuse me? Sir?" a voice called out.

I looked to my right and the African-American woman behind the large desk at the front had raised her left hand authoritatively and was beckoning me over; she was simultaneously listening to a frail older man with white hair who was trying to understand what he needed in order to get a passport.

No disrespect but he was quite befuddled and as I walked over to heed her call, I had to stand behind him while she carefully and patiently repeated some documents that he needed to have with him to get a passport - a service which MCC also provides.

Now as I mentioned, I'm the only African-American besides her in the room and as some of you who read this blog know, I'm a 6'7" former professional football player, so I'm already sticking out like a sore thumb in a room full of white seniors; some of whom are now glancing at me discreetly since it was quiet in the room and the woman calling me over might as well have honked a car horn.

As a rule, I'm a rather careful planner, and I never mess around with events like these - if I go somewhere, be it a meeting, a concert, a talk, I'm always on the list, have a reservation or a ticket.

I'm a 6'7" black guy in New Jersey, I can't just "crash" events, just doesn't work.

Anyway I had called MCC the week before, made a reservation and given my name; probably to the woman who was still trying to explain passport documents while holding up her hand towards me as if to simultaneously hold me in place with what I can only assume was her way of wordlessly saying, "I'll be with you in a moment."     

As a residential leasing agent who deals with customers all day long in person, on the phone and via email, I know a little something about customer service and treating people with courtesy and respect.

If I'm dealing with a tenant who's seated at my desk and someone else walks in the leasing office, I always make sure to politely say "Excuse me a moment." to the person I'm speaking with to make eye contact with the visitor and assure them I'll be with them in a moment, and invite them to either take a seat on the couch or have a look around the office while I finish up - my office is also a model for a 1-bedroom apartment.

So my antennae were already up as I felt the woman behind the desk was being somewhat inconsiderate for loudly calling me over then not even having the courtesy to make eye contact with me.

I  was probably only standing there for about 90 seconds, but it seemed longer and when the old man in front of me finally shuffled off, she asked if she could help me.

Now of course she'd just seen me going for a seat for the seminar on wills before she called me over to the desk, so while I was tempted to say something smart in response, I thought better of it and politely told her I was there for the seminar, told her I had a reservation and gave her my name.

She found it, crossed it off with a yellow highlighter and thanked me.I thanked her back and took a seat to wait for the seminar to begin.

The exchange kept going through my mind as I sat there waiting for the seminar to begin and even though the woman at the desk was herself black, I couldn't stop wondering if she had called me over simply because I was black.

I didn't feel slighted or anything, but I did feel singled out and admittedly my feathers were lightly ruffled.

Looking back, those feelings were probably magnified by my own sense of isolation being the only African-American visitor in the room at the time.

Author and journalist Lena Williams
As Lena Williams writes about with humor in her book Its The Little Things, for many African-Americans and other people of color, it's usually not something "big" like being refused service in a restaurant because of one's race; that actually happened to me in Moscow during  a visit to the Soviet Union in 1987.

Oft times it's the small, quiet little exchanges people take for granted that take place during the course of a normal day that can prick one's racial sensitivities.

Like a grocery store clerk who smiles at white customers then says nothing when it's your turn in line; or a cop that gives you "a look" for no reason.

 The exchange can be momentary, and the action that prompts one to immediately suspect race or ethnicity as the cause, may have been completely unrelated to race at all.

The grocery clerk who didn't smile at me might have suddenly had heartburn, or maybe something about the white person they'd just smiled at reminded them of a relative who'd passed away; it might have had nothing to do with the color of my skin.

But it often does in this country. I assure you that I could fill many blogs with descriptions of instances where it has.
So as the seminar began and I sat there listening to the attorney at the front of the room, I started to think that maybe I'd just read the incident at the desk wrong.

What if, I reasoned to myself, the woman at the desk had carefully checked off the name of every other person sitting there in the room? After all, I was the last to arrive before the seminar began, I wasn't there to watch how the woman interacted with every other person in the room.
Maybe she was just being thorough as the event was crowded and there was simply no room for walk-ins.

After all, I had seen the elderly Asian lady standing outside the door studying a brochure when I'd first come in. Perhaps she too had tried to take a seat and the woman behind the desk had called her over and told her the event was filled so they couldn't take walk-ins?

Maybe my thoughts said more about how I perceive myself than about how the woman treated me.

So about 20 minutes in I was cooling out, getting into the presentation and dutifully taking notes and my "racial antennae" were retracting back into my head when suddenly the front door opened.

The motion of movement caught my attention and I turned my head and watched as the young Indian woman I mentioned above walked in, looked around the room, then made her way across one of the rear rows of chairs and quietly took a seat.

Now of course, my antennae went right back up and I was waiting to see if the woman behind the desk would pounce on her too.

I immediately looked across the room at the woman behind the desk and she just sat there.

She made no move to beckon the young Indian woman who'd arrived late over to the desk to give her name; in fact she barely paid her any mind - she didn't give her "the hand" or come over with her notebook full of names to check her off.

And at that point, I honestly smiled. Seriously.

All of a sudden it struck me as funny and absurd. If she HAD called me over to the desk because I was black, it was silly and made no sense. And if she HADN'T  just called me over because I was black, then maybe my feeling singled out was silly and made no sense.

And that's when I thought about Lena Williams' book It's The Little Things and I remembered all the little ways that blacks and whites could annoy each other without realizing it.  

It had the affect of detaching me from my feelings. Here I was sitting in a seminar about wills, power of attorney and end of life decisions and I was alive and healthy and it was sunny out and I have a job - my ruffled feathers suddenly seemed so trivial and irrelevant.

A few minutes later an older white guy came in and sat down behind me and I almost laughed out loud.

I wanted to turn to him and smile and say, "Glad you made it."

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