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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Ineluctable Whiteness

WHOEVER INJECTED ME with my liberal-tinged middle-class whiteness left a scar. It’s the place where my supposedly enlightened thinking ends, replaced with gut fear. Leaving me very much in line with the folks Phil Ochs mocked in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Heaven knows I try to fly the equality banner, but I’m not always comfortable saluting it, as the following incident affirms.

This took place last night. I left a friend’s house at about 6:30 PM to head to a meeting in downtown Schenectady. I had no dinner, and feared that this would be a problem for one as food-addicted as I. With nothing to eat and at least two hours of meeting-time to sit through, I would quietly obsess about food to the point where I’d beeline to some fast-food emporium as soon as I was sprung, taking care to pay in cash and eat quickly enough to be able to stash the bag in a Thruway rest area trashcan so that my wife wouldn’t discover my dietary transgression.

Better, I figured, to buy a snack. Something to go with the thermos of coffee I was packing. To that end – and to top off my car’s gas tank – I pulled into a Mobil station and used my Speedpass to activate the pump. As I did so, a beat-up pickup pulled alongside another of the pumps. A young man hopped down from the passenger seat. He was African-American, sporting baggy jeans, a puffy jacket, and walking with a slouch.

He looked into the truck and pantomimed smoking a cigarette, mime-asking if cigs were on the shopping list. He collected money from the driver and went into the convenience store.

By the time I reached the counter with a power bar in hand, the fellow had his snacks and smokes in hand and went on to select lottery tickets. I felt annoyed at having to wait for such a pointless transaction, but the counterman rang my purchase – it was under two dollars – and I waved my speedpass at the credit-card console.

“Oh, no,” the counterman said in Middle Eastern-accented English. “Five dollar minimum.”

Credit card companies and merchants have been locked in a crazy dance for years now over practices like this. New York has a state law forbidding different cash and credit-card pricing, but you don’t see that stopping many gas stations from those discount systems. The rules for credit-card minimums seem vague, and I have sympathy with the merchants who have to fork over usurious fees. Except when I’m hungry. But hunger exacerbates my grumpiness, and grumpiness can actually trump hunger, which is why I left the candy on the counter, muttered an imprecation, and strode away.

Back in my car, seat-belted and ready to drive, I noticed the black kid approaching me. My white-guy hackles rose. Yes, he was heading my way. Yes, he was motioning me to roll down my window. No, I wasn’t very comfortable with this. Whatever he wanted to threaten or beg – I didn’t want to have to deal with it.

But to flee outright? I’m a white-haired white guy in a Volvo. I have my dignity to uphold. I lowered the window enough to let in oxygen and sound waves. “Yes?” I said, sounding kind of croaky.

“You okay with gas?” he called.

What? “With gas?”

“I heard the guy in there sayin’ somethin’ about five dollars. You tryin’ to get gas?”

“No, no – I’m okay.”

“’Cause if you needed gas, I’d give you some money, man.”

My reflex-driven fear got clobbered into submission. Guilt – thick, liberal-assed, white-guy guilt – came seeping out the cracks. I felt like an idiot. Even writing this piece doesn’t assuage it, but at least I get to pretend to some level of self-knowledge.

“Oh, no – thanks. I got the gas I needed. Thanks.” Listen to how effusive Mister Milquetoast can be!

“Okay, man. You have a good night.”

1 comment:

Harry Minot said...

O. Henry couldn't have provided a better ending. Life exceeds art. You never know from which corner Grace may emanate. We're all in this together. Proof Of Heaven, if you ask me.