Black. White. And asparagus. (A reprise)

(Once in a while, Liss asks me to repost the following entry, which was - I think - my very first post here. Kind of a TV Land-style revisit. Today I actually remembered...)

As happens occasionally, the larder at Casa Waveflux was lacking some essential items last night. I volunteered to brave the after-work crowds at the local supermarket and pick up a few things. I asked M what she wanted for dinner. "Spinach," she said. "And 'boeuf.'"

"Spinach and 'boeuf' it is," I said, and off I went.

The trick to early evening grocery shopping is a laser-like focus on the objective. Get it and get out. I grabbed a couple of Balance bars*, then guided the shopping cart to the asparagus. I love asparagus, but finding the right bundle of spears requires some attention. I rejected the first two candidates, then eyed a third which looked promising.

"Excuse me," said a voice to my left.

I turned to find myself facing an older white guy - perhaps sixty, sixty-five. He was casually dressed, had graying hair, glasses. He carried a plastic bag of some produce or other in his left hand. His expression seemed friendly enough. I thought at first that I was blocking his access to the asparagus and prepared to sidle over with a suitable "Excuse me." But it wasn't asparagus that the man had on his mind.

"I was listening to public radio this afternoon," he began.

I smiled expectantly, but my heart sank. I was about to be roped into a conversation. This is what happens when you let your guard down in the produce section. It's happened before.

"They had on two men from that black and white television show," the man continued.

Context is vitally important in impromptu social encounters. Given that this gentleman had heard about the show on NPR, and recently at that, and given the difference in our racial profiles, and given finally his very earnest expression, I knew that he wasn't referring to Leave It to Beaver. He could only be describing Black. White. , the FX race-swapping show. Oh, dear, I thought. The asparagus seemed suddenly far away.

My companion - whose name I never learned - went on to describe the exchange between these two men, one African-American and the other Italian-American, who ventured into the world guised as white and black respectively. They had returned with very different takes on the experience; my companion was highly distressed at the Italian-American man's seeming denial of racism in the culture, and he really, really wanted to tell somebody.

So he told me.

He was mystified that anyone, regardless of skin color, could go through life unaware of prejudice even if untouched by it him/herself, and asked me how that could possibly be. I said something about the difference in individual experiences that left people more or less equipped to recognize racism; I suggested that sometimes people come to such perceptions very late in life. He looked skeptical, but seemed to accept the possibility.

He went on to talk about the integration of Catholic schools here in St. Louis - seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, the work of Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Ritter - and the shock and resistance that the change produced in the community here. I know practically nothing about Ritter - just the name, really - but this was history that my companion had lived, and it had clearly left a profound impression on him.

At length, we parted company. I really had to finish my shopping and get dinner ready, I said. He gave me a rather hearty clap on the back, thanked me for talking to him, and away he went.

I picked out my asparagus and went on my way. Spinach and 'boeuf,' you know.

When I got home, I related the story to M, my wife - my white wife - and she laughed. "My people," she said, "can be very strange." She clearly considered the idea of picking out someone to represent all black people really odd.

And yeah, there's something to that. But hey, who's he going to talk to - George Bush? Conversation requires crossing lines, borders, barriers. As odd as it was, I'm glad he pulled me aside.

(Note: I no longer eat Balance bars.)

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