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    Racism, Bicycles, And Billie

    So, the other night, I’d planned to get more tightly into the subject of racism, which winds tightly about my life by default of time and place. “Time” being when my life occurred on the timeline of history, and “place” being where it did so. In the U.S. in the mid-‘70s, it had been hushed. Racism. It wasn’t in vogue. But it sure as fuck wasn’t dead. And for those who found it out of fashion, many only fashionably decried it. Behind closed doors, elder Americans often cursed “niggers” for upsetting the status quo as it had existed up until just a few years before. Young people who’d lived in such homes but had socialized with more progressive friends sometimes wanted quite badly, I think, to be enlightened. But I remember their faces, some of these young adults who’d come to student teach at my elementary school, as they choked out phrases such as “we’re all the same” and I knew they wanted to buy it but somehow couldn’t and I wonder, now, where they are today and how their philosophies evolved or devolved  Because I know a lot of people of that age group who went kind of- Wow. Off the charts with the right wing outlook and rhetoric and, like their parents had, behind their doors or even in public among those they believed of like mind, the word “nigger” shot out of their mouths regularly. And derogatory remarks about Mexicans. And Asians. And whomever. Anyone not like them. And to me, to my ear, to my site and mind, this shit’s exploded since I’ve become an adult. At a time I’d hoped we – as a culture – would’ve moved beyond it. Over the past weeks, Americans of Middle Eastern descent have been white-knuckled, afraid of their neighbors because so many of them equate them with terrorists and terrorism. Some have resorted to violence against these Americans: Arab-Americans, Persian-Americans, various other Americans of the Muslim faith. Some of those of Middle Eastern extraction aren’t even Muslim, themselves but of some Christian sect or perhaps even Jewish. All targets of racist remarks, threats, and beatings.

    I recall too well how, as a kid, we’d be eating out and a black dude would come through the door as if he expected a meal in exchange for money or something and to eat in peace but instead would get a wall of shock from the white diners inside. It hadn’t been too long since maybe that action would’ve gotten him thrown back out into the street by many or most of the patrons within. Maybe he was intentionally pushing the envelope. Testing his rights as a human being to live as God had created him and without fear of persecution for it. Maybe he was naïve, perhaps used to dining in a more familiar diner without hassle. The whites inside might not have liked it either way. But they knew that times had changed and, like it or not, that man was eating with them. Not in the alley, not elsewhere. Inside. With them. It hadn’t been too long before then that things- Things were different. And I was born into a period of transition. I never knew a time when someone couldn’t enter the same establishment as I could because of the color of their skin. But I sure as Hell experienced the wrath of whites who had to share. That chill of being unwelcome with a good amount of fear added to it. It wasn’t even directed at me and I could feel it.

    Now, a big secret I harbor is that, up until I was 7, I’d never known a single black soul. There were no blacks where I was from in rural Nevada. I was familiar with them only through my grandparents’ television set. I remember the first time I saw a black man. I was- I can’t describe the feeling. It was elation, intense interest. I’d wanted to go speak to him.

    The relative I was with pulled me back. Explained to me that black people would harm me if I got too close. Can you believe that shit? It’s a head-shaker to me, though, as well that I’d had to see that individual as a curiosity rather than a human being because of people like this nit-wit relative. Because I’m sure that this young black man had plenty of relatives warning him to stay clear of us white folk in fear that we might harm him if he got too close. So he didn’t. He kept a distance away. And I was taken by the hand and led away. To “safety”.

    I consider this little occurrence to be one of the most shameful things I’ve ever been a part of. I always have. If even I was guiltless of wrongdoing. I was a tool for its manipulation. I’ll never forget the man’s face. I just wanted to talk to the man. I wanted to know something about him. To understand his reality. Rather than the one others were forced into believing because our culture was only then trying to undo hundreds of years of crimes against folks like him. I wanted to know.

    It was my great-uncle’s wife who’d pulled me away. It was and remains the most hateful thing I’ve ever experienced and to have been used to make that man feel like less of a man… I can’t forgive that. Not without some kind of admission of guilt and of being wrong. I haven’t seen her since that summer, though, and I- She’s not in my great-uncle’s life, anymore, I don’t think. So she lives on in my memory and will only live on, there, being an ass. As for the young man… God only knows.

    My writing’s all over the place, these days. I’m so full of meds that it’s a wonder I’ve written this much. As for its quality, hey. I throw my hands up into the air. You get what you get. It’s just turned 1 a.m. and I’m beginning to drag. A cousin asked how the writing was going and we got into a discussion about the epilepsy and- That kind of thing wears on me. That’s not meant as anything negative to my cousin. I’m grateful for his interest, that he cared enough to ask how things were going. I just get detached easily. Foggy. Tired. Too many questions makes me want to withdraw. Quickly.

    The same is true of reading. Of going over news and studying current events. I like to know what’s going on. It’s always been an interest of mine – even as a child. Nowadays, I’m pretty fast to come to a point at which I’m done. Where I can’t do it, anymore.

    I tell myself not to worry about it, that I’ll figure out a way around it. I believe I will. I just wish it was sooner. That it would come sooner.

    My next appointment with my neurologist is Thursday afternoon. My birthday. I’ll be 45. Fuck. I don’t feel it, 45. I still feel like a kid. But sometimes I feel a lot older than 45. Was it that long ago that I was that 7-year-old I mentioned earlier? The little kid who idolized Evel Knievel? I had a bike that looked like a motorcycle my Grandpa Sandy picked up at the Western Auto store in Elko, Nevada, during a summer visit – the summer of 1976. It was the Bicentennial; everything was in red, white, and blue. Even the trains that went through Northern Nevada. White, with red and blue trim. As was my bike. Had a fake gas tank and shock absorbers. Knobby tires. Looked like Evel Knievel’s motorcycle, I thought, and- I never once tried to jump it. Because it was kind of beefy. And I was a little guy. The neighborhood kids tried to get me to lend it to them so they could take it out and treat it cruelly.

    “Can I tear the plastic junk off it?” one asked, suggesting it’d make it lighter and better at whatever it was he’d had in mind.

    I refused. It was my baby. I took it back to San Diego with me in one piece. Pristine. I waxed it. Put Armor-All on its seat and tires and the pad across the handlebars. Kept its chrome shiny. Avoided anywhere that could’ve been hiding thorns, nails, and anything else that might harm its inner tubes.

    I was 8. I rode that thing around San Diego like an adult on a motorcycle.

    I liked to park it just inside the entrance to our naval housing apartment unit in the daytime while making quick trips upstairs to our place to eat or whatever. The lady downstairs warned me about this more than once.

    One evening, I went upstairs for dinner and left the bike unsecured overnight. The next morning, it was gone.

    I guess we all have that one beautiful thing that we lose sometime in our childhood. I had several.

    The lady downstairs was named Billie. She was a tall, beautiful ebony woman with glistening hair; I had a crush on her. While her husband was deployed, she retreated to the room just below mine (which wasn’t just mine; I shared it with my cousin Jimmy)- She retreated to the room just below to relax while expecting.

    I didn’t like making Billie mad at me, but I easily made any adult mad at me, as I wasn’t the best-behaved kid in the world. After my Grandma Gwen passed away, I decided that no adult had the authority to tell me what to do unless I gave them that authority. I constantly fought with my aunt and uncle. I fought with Jimmy. Sometimes I’d piss Billie off, too. Like the time we all went to a naval barbecue and I, for some now-unknown reason, leaped out of Billie’s car and told her and my aunt that I would walk back home.

    Billie said “fine”, that she didn’t play games with little assholes like me. She didn’t say “asshole”, but the idea came across clearly.

    After I’d walked about half a block, she’d come up from behind and ordered me into the car. Not in a rough way but in a gently firm one. “Gently firm” is an oxymoron that most mothers probably easily get.

    I didn’t argue. I didn’t say a word. I did as I was told.

    A few days later, I was upstairs making some kind of racket when my cousin ran in and told me Billie needed to see me. “Like, now!”

    She’d asked me to keep it down several times by then because she was resting. By that time, her baby bump had become enormous and she tired easily. And I don’t think I’d mentioned it before now, but she had a little girl to take care of, too, and it was really bothering her that her husband wasn’t there to be with them.

    I refused to go downstairs. As much as I loved her, I didn’t want any part of being on her bad side.

    I went downstairs to go play and as I hit the last step, her door opened.

    It was her little girl.

    “My mom wants to talk to you,” she reported.


    I shuffled inside, to where she sat in a rocking chair, looking beautiful but worn out.

    “Sit down, Todd,” she ordered. Firmly. Yet gently.

    I did as she told me.

    She didn’t say anything at first. She just smiled. It was a weak, tired smile. Then she began to speak.

    “While my husband’s at sea, I need someone to look after us. Can you look after us, Todd?”

    I nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! What do I do?”

    Billie smiled. In the way an exhausted person might. “I might need you to run an errand for me, now and then. And I need you to make sure that I get plenty of rest because the baby’s coming, soon. Do you think you can do all that?”

    I nodded. “I can!

    “Okay.” With difficulty, she reached behind the chair and pulled out a purple box. “I have something for you.”

    She handed it to me.

    “Go ahead,” she implored, smiling. “Open it!”

    I did. It was filled with chocolates.

    “They’re ‘bon-bons’,” she explained.

    I asked her what she needed me to do first.

    “I just need to rest for now,” she replied.

    I promised her I’d see to it that nobody disturbed her.

    “I know I can depend on you,” she smiled, her eyes falling shut.

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