Potato Chips and Prejudice

One of my few sins is that once in a great while I munch potato chips as I write. Chipless this week, facing deadline, I cruised to the 7/11 for succor. There behind the counter was a beautiful black man, darker than night, 6 foot 5, maybe 220 pounds. “Where you from in Africa?” I asked, plunking my money down. “Where are you from in Europe?” he asked.

God bless him. This young working man was not about to take bullshit from a white man just because we were born on different places on our home planet.

“My ancestors came from Alsace-Lorraine,” I said.

“That’s not a country,” he said.

“No, it’s a disputed area between France and Germany, where a lot of wars have been started, and fought,” I said.

“How many languages do you speak?” he asked.

“Spanish and English, and a little French and German, and I’m studying Latin,” I said.

“Parlez vous Français?”

“Un peu.”

He smiled and laughed. Other people were waiting behind me.

“Come back and we’ll talk, man,” he said.

I promised I would, and I will.

Just a little colloquy at a convenience store, right?

No, it’s not.

Two years ago, my new friend and I would have yokked it up from Word One.

Today, under the Schlump administration, what once would have been an exchange of friendly words was amped up, from Word One, into a confrontation.

My new friend assumed, I am sure, that my innocent question was offensive, possibly racist: perhaps that I was a government agent, looking for a reason to deport him.

Now, don’t call me paranoid, and don’t call him paranoid. That would be a reasonable conclusion. That’s how things are today in the United States. Not just at my convenience store in Denver, but everywhere: at school board meetings in Kansas, neighborhood bars in Nebraska, first-grade classes in Arizona, union meetings in Oregon and job lines in New York.

It would be easy for us to blame this on one person — and we know who that is — but though the president of the United States is today our foremost promoter of racism and violence, it’s not just his fault, or the fault of the sleazy opportunists he hired to work for him in the White House: It’s the fault of the millions of Americans who voted for him.

Let me tell you another story that happened to me one day, about 40 years ago. I was a musician, going to a gig in New York City, and I got on the BMT instead of the IRT, or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, I had to walk all the way across Harlem, in my platform shoes, lugging my tenor saxophone, past blocks of ruined apartments, dilapidated storefronts, people hanging out on the stoops.

All I got on that long, long walk was smiles. People saw me for who I was: a horn player on the way to a gig. I never felt the least bit of tension or hostility from the hundreds of people I saw, and who saw me.

Today, just trying to strike up a conversation over a bag of potato chips, I saw what Donald john Schlump and his storm troopers have done to this country. And I hated it.

All I can do to try to remedy this vile desecration of our country is to write this column, go back to work, and, maybe, invite my new African friend over to my house.

He’s welcome here.

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