Vignettes across America
Posted by Jew from Jersey
6 May 2022
The Last RacistTwenty-five years ago, I was standing on the corner of High and Russell streets in Columbus, Ohio, waiting for the number two bus. I heard some mumbling behind me and turned to see a homeless man talking to himself. He was skinny and unkempt and had bad posture. He didn’t look terribly old, but seemed prematurely aged. His appearance and mumbling didn’t surprise me. There was a mental health clinic a few stops up and mentally impaired people often rode the bus this way. He said something about how “niggers are brown because they’re shit.” Then he said something about a “nigger bitch.” Then he fell silent. A well-dressed black woman, probably in her mid-twenties, walked towards us. He remained silent until she has well out of earshot. Then he started up again.
So, the poor darling wasn’t completely insane after all. That was last racist I ever saw. And that was twenty-five years ago. And he was afraid of that young woman.
Jewchild in the HeartlandIn the fall of 2020, I spent about two months knocking doors for the Trump campaign in a rural part of Pennsylvania. I must have knocked about a thousand doors and talked to maybe five hundred voters face to face. I talked with anyone who would talk to me, anyone I encountered or who happened in on the conversation, even a few Democrats. Most people I talked to supported Trump in a heartfelt way that I did not. My support was more calculated. I didn’t really love the man the way many of them did. But I was glad for the chance to listen. I heard about every issue: the economy, censorship, abortion, patriotism, the military. People told me they were afraid to speak out, afraid for their families, for the future, for common sense and decency. At the end of each day I’d think of all the people I’d met and choose one of them as my “voter of the day.” Maybe some time I’ll sit down and write a book of vignettes about those people.
But somewhere in my liberal Jewish hindbrain there was always an expectation someone was going to say something like “Us white folks got to stick together.” And why not? Here I was, a bearded middle-aged man in a MAGA hat walking down a country lane in corn-growing country. If there were any racists left in America as I had been raised to believe, wouldn’t this be the place to find them? And if they were ever to share their racial animosity with a sympathetic stranger, wouldn’t this be the time and place? But no one did. And people wanted to talk and talked a lot. The only person who mentioned anything racial was one man who said he was sure Trump was going to win because even black people where he worked said they were voting for Trump this time.
The King of the Land of the BlindFor five years, I lived in one of the most progressive parts of New England. I should give the people there credit for pushing me from the left to the right side of the political spectrum. When I moved there, I still thought I was a liberal. What did it for me wasn’t so much political debate with anyone or any particular issue that might be debated, but the general erosion of common sense and norms. I began to feel alienated not because people disagreed with me, but because of the lack of any framework that would allow for disagreement. It was as if they lived in a different world than me, where yes was no and up was down and kerblueyblllbapitiiNK$#&%(*$! The complete lack of common ground began at a level far deeper than a disagreement on facts or the interpretation thereof. There was a lack of agreement on what constituted an acceptable method for resolving disagreements, of what constituted acceptable behavior or even acceptable perception of reality. But even as I continued to withdraw and disengage, I myself began to accept and tolerate the insanity, although I didn’t realize this at the time.
I eventually moved to a more conservative part of the country. I don’t mean it was politically conservative, but that it was, well, normal. You could actually talk to people even if you disagreed with them and be more or less confidant you could interpret what they said and how they behaved. People were not always friendly, but it least it wasn’t bizarro-world.
The point was driven home to me a year later when I had to go back to my old New England stomping ground for a few days. I was walking down the street and was accosted by a young man who looked me in the eye and excitedly yelled “Hey, man!” and continued looking at me with great anticipation. I stopped to get a better look at him. He was somewhat disheveled, but looked well cared for. His clothes, hippie-style though they were, looked new. He certainly looked well-fed. But for all of this, I didn’t recognize him. Was this a former classmate? Had he been a student of mine? A neighbor? Perhaps we frequented the same cafe? As my brain cycled through less and less likely scenarios, he said again, with no less enthusiasm than before: “Hey, man!” Then it suddenly clicked: I didn’t know this guy from Jack. He had no idea who I was. He was simply out of his ever-loving brain. I walked away. He remained standing there, presumably to shout “Hey, man!” at the next passerby.
I was somewhat shaken by the experience. I had lived there five years and had seen some strange sights, but nothing like that had happened to me before. I was usually quicker on my feet. Then it occurred to me that in the town I lived in now, you didn’t see guys like that. No one would be allowed to keep existing in their bubble of crazy. I assume he was on drugs, but even so. Someone would ridicule you or give you a piece of their mind, and you just wouldn’t try it again. Whatever natural tendencies to instability that young man had, it was years of life in that non-judgmental environment that had let him drift into that kind of public display of weirdness. When I lived there, I had probably walked right by people like him every day without even noticing. I probably wouldn’t even have heard him say “Hey, man!” the first time. It was the more judgmental environment that taught me to look people in the eye again and treat them like they mattered.