Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Four Four Sixty-Eight – One Twenty Oh Nine

I’ve worn a One Twenty Oh Nine lapel pin and shown the sentiment off on my bumper for several years now, and when I began the practice it seemed an unimaginably long time to that date. The bumper sticker grew incredibly tattered and eventually was scraped off completely.

Now the date is here, and it is more than it was – not only are we rid of a bullying and punishing president and age, but we also gain our first black and white president. That was something totally beyond my imagination when I bought that first One Twenty Oh Nine sticker. And I had certainly not thought of the fact that One Twenty Oh Nine turns out to be close enough to Martin Luther King’s birthday to be a defacto celebration of it – the day he was born, not the day he died which was Four Four Sixty-Eight, or April 4th, 1968, a day I remember well.

Forty-one years ago I was working in Norfolk, Virginia, in a small tavern at 3313 Colley Avenue. It backed up on the black neighborhood, and the black cooks and dishwashers slapped through the back screen door and were not allowed beyond the kitchen into the Tiffany-shaded, rustic, dining room and bar.

This banishment was fractured in the case of some screaming tantrums between the white, red-mustachioed owner and the bearded, African-American cook who took his paycheck and was often not seen for a couple of days. He’d gotten paid, the owner was a jerk, and he was not coming back until he had to. When he had to, the resulting confrontation was well-attended by the young, comparatively well-off professional clientele.

I was young and pale skinned, a yank out of my element, according to black people in the kitchen. At the time they were not called Black. They were called by most of the Whites the N word. I can’t remember how I differentiated them. It must have been Negro or even Colored, or perhaps I just called them by name. All I remember is being ostracized by them. When I pushed through the divided door into the kitchen they paused their talk, called me Yank, called me White Girl, told me to go back home, and in the midst of wisdom-tooth trouble gave me pain pills that sat me down and glued me happily to my seat. I’ve been looking for those pills ever since. They were rude to me, and caring, and impatient. “Go back home, White Girl, you don’t know nothing about what’s going on here.”

I grew to see the southern situation as a mountain of black people, sighing, and a sea of white people washing against them, plaintive, demanding.

Dismissed by them I played with the white folks out front, yet never grew tired of checking them out in the kitchen. Two black men sat at the scrubbed wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, peeling potatoes and tossing them into buckets of cold water beneath the table. They were discussing whether the earth went around the sun or the sun went around the earth. The sun poured in upon them in those horizontal streaks. I nearly fainted from the beauty of it.

One night I went home late, to the omnipresent white-folks party, and somehow heard that Martin Luther King had been shot. I scarcely paid attention. Dr. King was a minister, of whose ilk I had become distrustful, and he was the object of network news, which made him suspect. It was only when I walked into the kitchen the next day and found tall Janny twisting iceberg lettuces in half with her bare hands, naked tears scalding down her cheeks and upon the wilting lettuces, that I understood, suddenly, what had happened. White lawyers consumed Black tears in their salads that day.

The riots began, and eventually I did take their advice and went home again. That summer Bobby Kennedy was killed the very day I took my little brother to the airport on his first leg to Viet Nam.

One of my forever banes when I was an angry young person is what I called Black Suits, and, recollecting, have begun to call them again. Those were white men – and now women – who wore suits for a living and invariably also big black shoes (now, often, stilettos), and made punishing decisions about money, religion, and what grade, job, or seat on the bus we must settle for. They decided who would get that car loan or mortgage, and how much through-the-nose we would have to pay for it until its shoddy workmanship fell apart. They also decided which eighteen-year-old boy would be ripped from everything familiar, thrust into a uniform, given a gun, and sent off to fight their wars. It goes on, you never win, it is cyclical – or not – forward one step, back two. Keep pushing that big old rock up the mountain. Pay attention, stay in your own lane, let that cellphone ring until you can pull over. And enjoy every little thing you can.
Quite a balancing act.

There have been many years without hope. We have Obama now, but it took the demolishment of our government, our entire country, and our psyches to get him. And he comes with baggage, and ignorance too. He seemed to pay attention to food, at least had an aide brief him on Michael Pollan’s Letter to the Next President, but now he’s chosen Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. It seems that the misnamed “Green Revolution” of genetically altered seeds, subsidies, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, Fencerow-to-Fencerow planting, and the abusive use of hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers and pesticides will continue to be seen as the lesser evil needed in order to feed the world.

But Obama has a great deal on his plate right now, and I’m sure it has not occurred to him that a real green revolution of local eating and sustainable growing can succeed in feeding the world, and feeding it healthily – the people and animals as well as the environment and the economy. When it does, when he has time, we need to be there with suggestions and answers and urgings.

So let’s keep on pushing that big old boulder up the mountain, pay attention, take joy in our own efforts, and Welcome Obama! As one reader put it, "This nation's long celebration of ignorance is morphing into something better."

We can only hope.

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