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November 30, 2005

Expecting racism and not finding it

(On the occasion of Blog Against Racism Day, I thought I would post this story first published in another venue.)

I worked in a nursery in Washington DC from 1984-1987. The outdoor plant business tends to slacken to zero in the winter months in the northeastern US, and so in order to keep cash flow at healthy levels, most large nurseries will maintain seasonal stock to take advantage of holidays: valentine crap in February, pumpkins in October, like that.

Which meant that by the time December 2 or 3 came around, all of us nursery employees were mightily sick of Christmas ornaments that needed to be priced and hung on Christmas trees, Christmas trees that needed to be cut and carried to cars, tapes of tinkly Christmas carols cycling at 35-minute intervals ten hours a day seven days a week, poinsettia sap on our hands and people being increasingly rude to the help as the month got older, this being Washington during the Entitlement Era, waiting on Reagan Appointees.

So when the actual 25th came around in 1985, my coworker Aubrey and I decided we were going to get as far away from Christmas as was possible. No television, tapes on the car stereo so that we didn't have to risk hearing carols on the radio, heading through the Virginia suburbs into the hills of West Virginia where no one had the money to do more than hang a wreath, and especially never on their Mercedes' radiator grilles. It was snowing, and got cold, and after a few hours we decided we wanted some coffee in that era before Starbucks, and we saw a cafe in the woods along the road - the Green Lantern Inn - that had lights on and people inside. And no decorations.

Aubrey, who was African-American, was a little hesitant. "Are we sure we want to go in there? It looks a little, you know, 'de nyooow de dyoow...'" - imitating the twang of a banjo to indicate the vague "Deliverance" look of the place. But I really wanted coffee, and I twisted his arm. We walked up to the front door of the cafe.

Which was locked. And just as our cold-addled brains were realizing that, a big burly West Virginian with a bloody apron opened the door, looking a bit concerned and skeptical.

"Oh," I said. "You're closed, huh? Looked like you were open." "Yeah," said bloody apron. "We're closed; we're just serving Christmas dinner to the folks that live here. But, um, you guys look cold. Come on in. We've got some coffee for you."

We drank coffee with the folks for about twenty minutes. Got up, left a five on the counter - figured about a 150 percent tip was appropriate - and bloody apron didn't unlock the door for us to leave until we'd agreed not only to take back the five bucks, and a thermos full of a fresh pot of coffee, but a couple of turkey sandwiches he'd been back in the kitchen wrapping for us.

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Posted by: Roxanne at December 2, 2005 02:55 PM
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