C.W. taught me a lesson in equality yesterday. I think he had fun. I didn’t.
It happened this way.
I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee and wandered into living room of our condo. The sun had not yet risen, but there was light enough. There, sitting on the couch, staring out at the skyline lights, was a man who resembled me in many ways: my age or older, Caucasian, blond, and nattily dressed in a sport shirt, khakis, and penny loafers. “Good morning,” he said.
I nodded and waited. He appeared to sink deep in thought for a moment before turning to me. “Do you believe in self-reliance?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“Would you like to hear my story?”
“Why not?” I said. I don’t know why. I guess it was because he looked so sincere and honest. He began.
“From the earliest age I can remember,” he said, “I’ve done everything more or less as expected. I obeyed my parents, who were hard working and honest people. In grade school, I was an exemplary student. In high school, I excelled at one of the finest educational facilities in the state. I took home awards. Garnered scholarships. Gave up many of the social activities enjoyed by the other students so I could study. My parents never stopped instilling in me the value of hard work, dedication, honesty, and sacrifice.”
I nodded, and he continued.
Then I made a seamless transition to college. I graduated with honors and prepared for a career.”
“You sound like a perfect American example of self-reliance and hard work paying off,” I said.
“There was war, then, and the draft,” he said. “I volunteered, served my time and ended my career with a thankless assignment in a foreign war. When I finished, and the plane took off over the South China Sea, I saw the blue water beneath me and relaxed. I knew that I would return unscarred. I dozed as the plane ascended into the clouds.”
The most amazing thing happened next. As the first gleams of the morning’s sunrise landed on the distant buildings, a change occurred in the room. As it lightened, he darkened. All of his features changed as if electronically synced in reverse with the emerging sunrise. His hair soon turned from straight blond to a tightly curled black, His face transformed itself into ebony, and an African-American of my age sat in front of me.
“The plane landed,” he said, “and I was soon back in my home town. It was a large metropolitan area and I felt opportunities would abound. They didn’t. Employers seemed almost surprised that I would apply for executive positions. A few offered me jobs driving trucks or managing cleaning crews.
“What about public-sector jobs?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? Neither the police nor fire department would hire persons … persons like me, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do,” I said.
“The only job I was ever offered in the public sector was as part of a road crew in the street department, and it wasn’t a supervisory job. You never enjoyed that kind of experience, did you?”
Still somewhat in shock over the identify shift, I could only shake my head, and say, “No.”
“Finally,” he said, “one of the railroad lines offered to hire me and teach me about diesel engines.”
“I took it, what else?” he said.
“Were you interested in diesel engines?”
“Are you kidding? My degree was in accounting, with a minor in finance.” He shook his head. “Diesel engines.”
“I met this girl,” he said. “We dated, most often at the movies, where we had to sit in the balcony. She cooked meals for us. There were few restaurants in town that served our kind.”
I said nothing.
“Then we married.”
I said nothing.
“I was eligible to buy a house on the GI Bill,” he said. “Nothing down, and what was a reduced interest rate at the time.”
“What happened then?”
“You don’t want to know.”
We sat in silence as the light finished filling the room. After a long period of nothingness, he slapped his leg. “Well,” he said, “things got better after that. Jobs opened up, but my college classmates had years of seniority by then. At least I didn’t have to come home smelling like diesel anymore.” He smiled.
I said nothing.
“Yes,” he said. “Things got better and better, until the country elected a president who looked more like me than like you.”
“I don’t know. It was like a long-standing resentment lay like a deep boil, unseen and forgotten. But there were plenty willing to prod that boil. It burst.”
“More and more, I’m thinking back to that long plane ride home.”