I mused about this earlier tonight on Twitter, but Twitter is a radiantly unsatisfying platform for this kind of thing, so I decided to bring it over here, too. My website, my rules. This is going to be kind of long and you might wonder at times where I'm heading with it; you can pass on it if you want, that's OK.
First, some background. I live in a very white place. Much of Maine is arrestingly non-diverse, demographically speaking, and particularly in its northern half. During its boomtime in the 1920s, Millinocket had a thriving Ku Klux Klan chapter, but—I'm not making this up—the only local people they could find to hate were the Italians. The Klan had gone by the time we moved to town in 1977, but the demographics were about the same. When I was a kid, the only people in town who weren't white were a few Chinese folks running restaurants, one Vietnamese family who lived down the street from us, a doctor and his family from India, and—literally—one black person. He worked at the paper mill my dad worked at. In those days pretty much everyone who wasn't a doctor, teacher, lawyer, or shopkeeper in town worked at the paper mill my dad worked at.
So here's an illustrative digression: Back then, Great Northern Paper Company was part of a larger company called Great Northern Nekoosa Corporation, which had another subsidiary in the Southeast, imaginatively called Great Southern Paper. Dad was an engineer for Great Northern, and two or three times a year, he'd be sent to the Great Southern mill in Georgia (which I guess didn't have its own engineering department) to do some work for them. In the evenings, the Great Southern mill guys would take Dad out for beers and crawdads and bitch about the government forcing them to hire black people.
Dad, who is from even farther north than I am, was in no way prepared to take part in a conversation of that kind. When they inevitably asked him if similar things were taking place at his mill, he would tell them that Great Northern employed every black person in Millinocket, and they would be astounded and a bit disturbed and change the subject.
And he wasn't even bullshitting them. There was, after all, only the one.
So... yeah. It's not exactly a melting pot, is what I'm getting at. If you dig up my high school's 1991 yearbook and look at the photo of my graduating class, you will detect a certain sameness. There are a hundred of us in that photo, and the closest we get to diversity is that a bunch of us are Italian-American and one had a Lebanese grandfather.
Fast-forward to the early 21st century, and the situation has still not changed very much. If anything, with the mill being gone and there being virtually no reason to even have a town here any more, and the population ever dwindling, it's gotten even more so. The Vietnamese folks who lived down the street when I was a kid moved to another town in the area years ago. There used to be a Congregationalist minister in town whose husband was from Jamaica, but she died suddenly some years back and I haven't seen him around town for a while, so I suspect he's moved on.
With the caveat that I don't get out much nor do I know absolutely everybody around here by any means, the fact remains that until quite recently, I knew exactly one black person in town. His name isn't Leon, but let's call him that. I must stress that I'm not anonymizing him because of anything he did, in fact there's no rational reason for me to do so at all, but it feels like the right thing to do in a situation like this. When we get to the end you may agree, or you may feel like I'm being weird. Either interpretation is probably valid.
Anyway, Leon worked at the supermarket. Super-nice fella, everybody else who worked there liked him, as did all the regular shoppers, as far as I could ever tell. Always smiling, even if he was doing some ultra-shit supermarket job like pushing a rammed-together mass of two dozen carts up the runoff-sloped parking lot back up to the store in the pouring rain on a hot and humid summer afternoon, or walking to work in a snowstorm. He made a point of knowing people's names, asking about their kids, all that kind of stuff. He always greeted me by name when he saw me in the store, and I can't remember how he actually knew my name.
One day a couple years ago we got to chatting about random stuff while he was bagging Mom's groceries, and he mentioned that he'd recently gotten into retrogaming. That meant something different to him than it does to me, since he's around 20 years younger than me. He asked me if I knew where he might be able to find a Sega Genesis. It so happened that I had a Genesis I hadn't used in years, so I went and dug it (and around 20 games) out of storage (literally, out of a storage unit a bunch of my stuff got put into when I moved back from California 20 years ago), and the next time I went grocery shopping I gave it to him, because what the hell, why not.
Anyway, that's still background; this isn't really a story about me giving away video game hardware. It's just to establish that I knew this guy in that see-you-at-the-store kind of way, liked him, and was pretty sure he liked me.
This is the real point of the whole story:
A few months ago, one of the other employees asked me if I'd heard that Leon was leaving soon. I made a point of stopping by the store on his last day to wish him well and ask him what his plan was, if he didn't mind telling me. He didn't, and cheerfully explained that he was moving away to get on with his delayed college education. The very next day, he was shipping out to get started studying for a degree in music.
At the University of Virginia.
I could say a lot of things here, but I'm not going to. Res ipsa loquitur, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say. Instead, I'm just going to say that my friend from the supermarket is on my mind tonight. I hope he's safe. I doubt he feels safe, not in Charlottesville, maybe not in the United States as a whole, not tonight. But I hope he's as safe as he can be.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.