True story (continued from Tuesday)
It was 2009. It was the San Francisco Bay Area; the place Middle America derides as a bastion of liberalism, environmentalism, efficient public transportation, and other things that work well. And a middle-aged, bleach-blonde bigot was mistaking me for a valet. She was ordering me, a fellow hotel guest, to serve her. She was barking at me. She was snapping her fingers at me. I was less than human to her. But the thing was, it wasn’t a big surprise that this was happening here. It wasn’t even uncommon.
Ten years earlier, in 1999: In less than a month, I would graduate from UC Berkeley. I celebrated early by hunting and gathering my favorite dish. I walked half a mile from my old apartment near Oakland’s Macarthur BART station to a new Korean restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. I’d never been to this place before. I pulled open the thick wooden double doors and walked into the dimly-lit restaurant. Four long, straight rows of tables and benches stretched from the South wall all the way to the North wall. Up above, six rusty lanterns hung from the rafters that held up the steepled roof. The lanterns cast deep black, shimmering shadows on the weathered plaster wall — shadows of the two dozen or so grim-faced men who sat in silence, shoulder to shoulder on the benches, eating noodles and soup out of large grey plastic bowls. I tried not to notice that every last one of them was Asian.
The sun streaming in through the double doors I’d opened slowly narrowed to a slit, before disappearing completely as the doors shut behind me. That’s when most of the men paused in mid-bite, mid-stir, or mid-thought, lifted their heads from their bowls, and watched me intently. I nodded hello to nobody in particular and quickly made my way around the mass of benches to the cashier who was standing behind a register in the northeast corner of the room.
“Hi,” I said, “how are you doing? May I see a to-go menu?”
“You won’t like,” the cashier replied.
“Huh?” I asked, thinking perhaps she hadn’t understood me. “Menu” I said, pantomiming being hungry, opening a menu and choosing a dish. “Yeah,” she replied. “No. You won’t like it. You go.”
At first the incongruity of it all made me wonder if it was really happening. This was the Bay Area. This was just a few long blocks from my apartment. This woman was clearly an immigrant. She didn’t speak with a Southern drawl, an elite standard English, or a working-class Queens dialect; but with just a handful of words she managed to sound just like David Duke, Rush Limbaugh or Archie Bunker.
“I’m sure I’ll like it,” I said. I noticed a short, disheveled stack of pink to-go menus in front of the cash register. As if by magic, she made the stack disappear with one swift arc of her left hand. “You go NOW,” she said.
In my head, I told this new American the story of her new country’s struggle with bigotry: The exodus of the Pilgrims. The horror of slavery, the codification of racism in the Constitution, the slow rise of abolitionism, and the Civil War. Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the race riots, the slow and steady Civil Rights struggle, and integration. The millions of Americans who thought openly gay people weren’t fit to wear our country’s uniform. In my head, I told this lady about the millions of Americans who would rather she had never set foot in this country.
But when I opened my mouth to speak, I looked at her vacant gaze. I turned my head and saw the unwelcoming glares of at least a dozen of the customers burrowing into my head. I saw the drab benches and the dreary plaster walls, decaying in disrepair. And I just wanted to get the hell out of there. “OK,” I said. “Good luck running your business in a black neighborhood.” And I turned and walked out.
With the divorce rate hovering at just over 50%, Red Staters and red-staters-at-heart would have been surprised (many of them happily so) to hear that Discrimination and the Bay Area were still together after all those years.
Ten years later, in 2009, a man in a vest and a bow tie was telling me “Sir, your room is on the second floor.” The blonde woman’s keys were burning a hole in my hand, and the image of her snapping her fingers at me was burning a hole in my head. For a moment, I thought of handing the keys to the front desk and washing my hands of it all. But then I remembered the axiom, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Shakespeare said that. Or was it Captain Kirk? In any case, in an instant I knew what I was going to do with this evil, evil woman’s car keys. She would never see them again.
I smiled all the way to my room. I smiled for half an hour on the treadmill in the hotel’s gym. I smiled as I asked the concierge to recommend a good Chinese restaurant. I smiled as I drove my rental car half a mile west. I grinned from ear to ear as I parked. I smiled as I felt the evil woman’s car keys in my jacket pocket and eyed a trash can right next to the front door of the restaurant. I imagined the blonde’s face when she realized her keys were nowhere to be found, her car had been towed, and her trip ruined by twenty seconds of her own bigotry. I got out of the car. I felt the cool November breeze whispering in my ears as I crossed the lot to the entrance. Just before I opened the door and walked inside the dimly-lit Chinese restaurant, I smiled as I dropped her keys into the trash can.
Inside the restaurant, I noticed that every last one of the patrons was Asian. Three long rows of tables and benches ran the length of the room from the East wall to the West. Almost a dozen men sat on the benches, sipping noodles from large ceramic bowls of soup. About half of them looked up and locked vacant stares on me. Right away, my mouth went dry and my smile unceremoniously left me. Across the room, a woman behind the cash register swiftly picked up a stack of pink to-go menus and hid it behind her back. My heart sank. It was 1999 all over again.
But this time I wasn’t going anywhere.
“Hi,” I started, standing straight and tall. The depth of the bass in my voice surprised me. It was as if James Earl Jones had crawled into my mouth and started talking. “Table for one” I rumbled as if I were daring them to say no.
“Right this way,” the woman said. She led me to the far end of the room. She sat me at a small table in a dark corner that was as out of the way as it could be. It was right next to a door. On the other side, there must have been an alleyway with a dumpster, or something like that. She’d sat me where nobody could see me. Where I would eat unnoticed by their usual clientele. Then she handed me a leather-bound menu, pointed out the day’s specials, and took my order. With my mouth I was asking her to bring me their spiciest lunch special, but in my head I was telling her the story of bigotry in America.
That’s when she said “pardon me” and reached across me toward the wall. She tugged on a string I hadn’t yet noticed. In an instant, dark wooden slats that I thought were a decoration slid open and the sun streamed into the room. She tugged on another string and with a flourish, coiled it around and around in her hand; and the slats shot up to the ceiling, revealing a large picture window. Outside was no alleyway; outside was the main street, a sycamore tree, and a diverse group of hungry people reading a menu posted on the window beside my head.
This wasn’t the rear of the restaurant. This wasn’t a dark corner where no one would see me. She had seated me next to the front entrance, in their window, in the best seat in the house.
I replayed the last few moments in my head. When I’d walked in, a loud, chiming bell rang just before the men looked up at me. When she’d picked up the to-go menus and hid them behind her back with her left hand, she’d simultaneously picked up the leather-bound menu with her hand and held it in front of her, already walking toward me. Now she was holding the front door open for the menu-readers (a group of business-suit-clad black and white people) and graciously inviting them in. She was tiny, this woman. Petite. Maybe no more than 4′ 11″. But all of a sudden she seemed huge to me.
And I felt small.
Just a moment ago, because of only two experiences I’d had, I’d been angry enough to give this woman a history lesson at the top of my lungs. She was the enemy to me, I felt bitterness. I felt rage. I felt that however I was going to tell her off, I would be justified. And I was wrong. Then I thought of the blonde woman who’d mistaken me for a valet and snapped my head off when I pointed out her mistake. She was at least a decade older than me. She was clearly wrong. But I had no idea how her life experiences led her to being the bitter, enraged person she was. I only really knew that we pass through each others’ lives, sometimes intersecting once, never to meet again, sometimes traveling together for a ways; but we’re all, each of us, essentially alone. And we’re either lucky – or condemned – to live out our lives with ourselves. This blonde woman who was captive to her own bigotry and anger did not seem lucky to me. And that was punishment enough.
I wasn’t put on this earth to punish people, anyway.
I stood up, took off my jacket and draped it across the back of my chair. I told the woman I’d be right back, I forgot something out back. I walked fast, past the rows of tables, past the men with their bowls of soup, through the door with the chiming bell. I looked into the trash can. It was disgusting in there. There were discarded noodles, a couple circling flies, a foul odor; and poking up through something I hoped was just kung pao chicken, the slimy tip of a car key. I plunged my hand into the trash can. I pulled out the key, and almost lost the lunch I hadn’t yet eaten.
I took it inside and carefully washed it off. I ate my lunch alone with a smile on my face. Back at the hotel, I handed the key to the front desk and told them one of their other guests must have lost it. The clerk called a valet, the valet took the key outside. A moment later he poked his head back in and said “this is it” and disappeared again. Presumably to go park the evil woman’s blue Saab.
I drove to meet the features editor of the Contra Costa Times, the executive director of the Walnut Creek Library Foundation, and Stephan Pastis, for dinner. I felt like I’d done the right thing, and I carried that feeling with me the rest of the evening. That’s probably what put me so at ease throughout the whole panel discussion (that, and the four stiff drinks. But mostly that, I’m sure).
This week’s theme song is Beyoncé’s “Scared of Lonely”: