I worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant in a cellar on Hayes near Clayton. Every day as I waited for my bus the same man dominated the streetcorner. Great bear of a guy, African-American, salt-and-pepper beard, barrel-belly. Voice like an opera singer, military gait of a Napoleonic Field Marshal. Pacing the corner orating nonsense to imaginary audiences. Before Reagan he was probably cared for somewhere.
For weeks he taunted me with racial insults. I seemed to be his favorite target, perhaps because it was obvious he upset me. And also, I think, because the neighborhood people enjoyed the show: the big black street crazy who could intimidate the helpless white boy. I'd catch suppressed grins on their faces and, sometimes, not-so-suppressed grins. This was years before Rodney King but, I found myself thinking, "Can't we all just get along?"
One day he changed. He was lucid and bright-eyed, speaking in a conversational tone. Friendly. I wasn't sure what to think. Called me "brother," seemed sincerely determined to make an overture of friendship.
"Can't we embrace just once as brothers?," he pleaded.
I was, as they say, taken aback. But also I was charmed. I thought, you know, this is a sweet change of heart. And, I felt the eyes of the neighborhood watching in judgment. Would I decline this offer of reconciliation between the peoples?
No, I'd embrace it. I left the bus shelter, walked toward him with arms extended.
Street corner, Western Addition, mid 1980s. Freckled, red-bearded white man with a charmed expression strides purposefully away from a glass-and-aluminum bus shelter, into the waiting arms of a 350-pound black street crazy in soiled clothes. While the whole neighborhood watches, the big man imprisons the smaller in the bear hug from hell, lifts him off his feet, humps him hard in mid-air, shouting in a powerful voice, "Heh heh heh heh! I gotchoo now! I gotchoo good! Heh heh heh heh!"
He carried me with him up and down the block, showing me off to the neighbors, humping me vigorously for several minutes, until he either came or ran out of energy, I don't know which, shouting "Heh heh heh heh!" while the people passing broke into derisive laughter, or stood around watching in groups, doubled over, slapping their knees. When he finally let me go a cheer went up, as I walked back to the bus shelter with as much dignity as I could muster.
From then on I walked to work.
Liberal guilt. This experience happened to a friend who was gullible in a well-meaning way. If he'd spent less time in the womb of the bus shelter and more talking to people the mystery would have evaporated, and with it the fear that drives the guilt.
He's grown up to be a professor at a small Quaker college in Indiana, where, the Web site notes, he's currently teaching Econ 14: Global Political Economy, and Econ 43: Marxism. He's absolutely the nicest guy in the history of the world.