It happened, again.
This time, in the grocery line.
She’d grabbed a couple early evening, post Sunday matinee snacks and taken her place behind those who appeared to have the least number of items. Two guys, knit capped, the one slightly bearded, directly ahead of her were perusing the tabloid mags on the rack just behind them. As one commented to the other, she noted the latest TIME special edition feature: “The Criminal Mind.”
Feeling a tad grandiose, she pointed to its title and ventured some crack about Italians all being corrupt. As expected, they turned to look at her. Tossing olive skinned, greying brown hair to one side, she demured:
“Well, not all of them.”
Her own father, second generation Napolitan/Sicilian blend, had always maintained a flawless public testimony – or, so she’d always thought.
The more they chatted, the more gradually she noticed the telltale accent of a Latino coming from the more talkative of the two. And so, typically, she asked him.
Reaching up to insert his card into the reader, he answered. “Yep.”
Then, she did what she too often did. She asked the next question. And, she did it because she was born in 1957, raised in this town, and had grown to expect that asking would be acceptable. She said:
” You know Julio…Julio Reyes?”
Smiling, he said: “No….”
“Owns Latinos — the restaurant??”
Genuine surprise. She thought everybody knew Julio. Or, at least, everybody who enjoyed real Mexican food. Like, Mexicans. Ergo, Julio.
The cashier, tall African American, young, bright eyed….smiled, looked at the two Mexicans.
And, because, even though an aging biddy she was still a quick study, she got it.
And, looking right at him: “Oh, I am SUCH a white girl!”
[ he was laughing, now ]
“I know….”All black people are related!” [ he doubled over ]
“All Mexicans know each other, personally!”……
[ everyone chuckling ]
“All Italians are corrupt…….! “
[ silence ]
The three men busied themselves. She rearranged her items on the conveyor.
“Well”….. she said, softly, head down……..”my little daddy was a sweetheart”.
She thought, again, about that moment when somebody she knew said he’d been told her dad was The Man. And she felt, again, just how much she did not want to believe it.
The two Mexicans finished their purchase. They all smiled at her transparency. She shimmered.
Her turn, at the register. The young cashier’s presence was too hard to resist. And, so she had to ask the next question, the one she always asked.
“You know, I taught school for twenty five years. Had four thousand students. I still bet you might have been my…..what school did you go to?”
Nope. Didn’t teach there.
“What’s your last name?”
Nope. She’d gone to school with a woman with the name, one not recognized by him. In fact, he scratched the back of his head with one finger, averted his eyes, and mentioned that he was known by another family name. Still, she had to tell him the family names she knew. And, he was already no longer interested.
She felt sorry.
Sorry that she had been born in 1957. Sorry that she’d done the thing, yet again, that would define her forever as the white girl who just had to ask all the questions that used to mean a willingness to generate conversation, create an atmosphere of casual openness and, most of all, express a genuine interest in finding the connections which linked people to one another. In this town, that used to mean not just family, but family origin. The generation which endures dismissal today used to know that people from certain parts of the world always settled in specific neighborhoods, and then stayed there. They all grew to know that these preferred to spend time with one another, largely because they shared their own language and secondly because they knew that staying close would keep everyone accounted for. And, their city was small. Each of these neighborhoods was block to block, side by side. They had Poles, Russians, and Czechs. They had Germans, and Irish. They had Italians, for miles. They had African Americans, who were called Negroes then by those who named everyone. And, they all made their life purpose the sustenance of their people – its customs, its food, its dress, and its family names.
She wondered whether the young men who passed through that grocery line would give any of this another thought. Perhaps their parents would help them understand.
The cashier completed her sale and, as he handed her the receipt she thanked him, by his name. And, he smiled, again – brimming with authenticity, and inner strength. His smile came from deep within his heart and mind. And, his laughter had forgiveness all over it.
She was glad about that.
Because the next time she’d be the white girl, she’d probably do it all again.
© 11/18/18 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the white girl, whose name appears above this line. Thanks for your forgiveness and respect.