Racial Autumn

An elegantly dressed womans arm and hand are held out hitch hiking on a deserted road.
An elegantly dressed womans arm and hand are held out hitch hiking on a deserted road.

My racial Autumn began on the shoulder of Greenbelt Road in Lanham, Maryland, 35 years before Trayvon Martin. Hitchhiking was cake: so many cars headed to the University of Maryland from where I'd graduated four months earlier without really letting go.

In no time, an effusively orange Nova pulled over. I ran over on my young, unleaded legs, opened the door and -

It all happened in slow motion: the 30-ish black man waving me in... his elbow clipping a container... its contents tumbling out... my eyes shuttling: Black guy: fried chicken, Black guy: fried chicken, Black guy: fried chicken.

We looked at each other for a month-long two seconds and then, 37 years before Ferguson, we lost it. Driving toward College Park, we agreed it was, for both of us, The 1977 Laugh Of The Year.

Way back then, the stickiness of race limped below the surface. I think that's true. Without cell phone videos to back me up, who knows what we were thinking at the time? There hadn't been race riots for almost a decade, black kids in Boston were kind of okay getting on school buses, Reggie Jackson was making $600,000 a year.

All in all, when it came to racism, out-of-sight, out-of-mind rings a bell...

Well, the point is, it just feels like that edition of Blacks and Whites pretended to not notice black and white, so when the subject rudely arose, the awkwardness was so much itchier. The fact that fried chicken caused my itch was priceless.

It turned out, 14 years before Rodney King, my driver was an off-duty Prince George's County cop bringing his girlfriend lunch.

I told him about an old Doonesbury strip when Mike Doonesbury noticed the black students eating separately in the Yale lunchroom. He joined them and, after a silence, said, "HEY, OL' MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS A HECK OF A FELLAH, WASN'T HE?"

The officer laughed. "I guess our meeting would have made a good strip for Trudeau too."

Way too fast, I said, "You follow Doonesbury?"

Instead of saying, "There are black people who read Doonesbury," he said, "It's in the [Washington] Post everyday."

As we passed the Goddard Space Center, he said he'd pulled over a weaving Delta 88 there a month earlier. The drunk driver was surprised to see his own .45 in the glove compartment.

"So, is PG County pretty dangerous for you?"

"It has its areas. Hyattsville, Bladensburg..."

I told him about my frat brothers going to a Bladensburg topless joint one night. After 10 minutes, the regulars flung bottles at us. One pledge was lucky his jugular vein wasn't half an inch to the left.

"How did it start?" the officer asked.

"No idea."

Maybe, 36 years before Black Lives Matter, whites like me wanted to talk about race but rarely got the chance. The fried chicken had opened the door but the topless bar incident was closing it. So, idiotically, I said, "The guys throwing the bottles were total crackers. And rednecks scare me more than anyone."

He may have had a trace of smile when he said, "Really?" I hoped he'd had a trace of a smile. Either way, I recited my racial resume: "Well, yeah. I grew up in Queens. My high school was like, 45 percent black and in gym, the black guys played half-court, straight up - you didn't bring the ball back behind the foul line on change of possession so I became a really good rebounder. Anyway, after school I worked at Naturalizer, a shoe store in - I don't know how well you know Queens - it was in the heart of Jamaica."

"Rough neighborhood, huh?"

"Oh yeah. Very - not that anyone ever bothered me. Well, one guy came up to me and said, 'Let me hold a quarter,' but the door to the Q17 bus opened and I just got on."

"But you weren't scared."

"No. Not scared. Not really."

There was a tinge of let him slide in the way he nodded. I just had to ask, "Do I sound like I'm full of it?"

He smiled. "Maybe a little. But if you were scared, it's okay. Just being honest is the way to go..."

He trailed off without adding, "... when talking to black people."

At that moment, it would have been nice if I could have told him that in 31 years, we'd have our first Black president and eight years after that, I'd consider him the best president in my lifetime by far. It would have been sickening to tell him that electing the first black president not only didn't end to racism in America, it brought it gurgling madly to the surface and how that made liberals like me strain to remember how we'd felt about race in, say, 1977.

A month after the hitchhiking episode, it dawned on me that there was shockingly little money in hanging out at the Student Union all day with enrolled undergrads. On a tip, I applied for a job at Jeans West in Landover Mall.

The weightlifter/manager was ripped (let's say) 20 years before the term ripped, with a Julius Erving afro. During the interview, he sipped a soda and said "I could use some ice."

I said, "That's some nasty shit without some ice."

I thought his look said this white boy just lost a job. But no.

"Did you know that's a line from Richard Pryor?"

My friends and I were Pryor fanatics.

Through Christmas, the boss and I recited Pryor bits daily but, (let's say) 17 years before the term n-word took hold -- only he'd quote Pryor and include the word "nigger."

After the last shopping day before Christmas, he said to me, "So, when you do Pryor jokes with your friends, do you say 'nigger?'"

He stared at me in the way he did when confronting an employee on a fishy sale.

Just being honest is the way to go...

"Yeah. I say... it."

He broke his death stare and said, "I appreciate you being straight with me. I also appreciate you not using the word. But when you're doing Richard Pryor with me, you can say nigger."

"Actually, I don't think I can."

"It's okay. Go ahead. Do one Pryor routine and say the word."

"What are you going to do if I don't? Fire me?"

He laughed. "Imagine me telling the other salespeople, 'I fired Peter for refusing to say nigger.'"

It would have been nice if I could have told him that six years later I'd be working at ABC Sports with tennis great Arthur Ashe. I could have (maybe) seemed enlightened by relating how Arthur once told me that every day, he woke up as a famously beloved resident of left-wing New York City with one thought: "How am I going to get around being black today?"

Instead, I half-laughed and said, "Merry Christmas."

I had a car by then and on the way home I thought --

You know what? Two years after Ferguson, twenty-two years after Mark Fuhrman, a year after Charleston AME, two years after I Can't Breathe, 35 years after hoodies and 61 years after Rosa Parks, I'm having doubts as to whether three months under a black boss and one hitchhiking anecdote qualifies as a Racial Autumn.

Anyway, in case it does qualify, I should mention that, when the police officer dropped me off just south of Fraternity Row, he made a bit of a show of reaching into the backseat to retrieve the fried chicken. The laughs had drained out of the bucket. I just smiled.

"Sometimes," he said, "it's a relief when people live up their stereotypes, huh?"

I said, "I guess so. And just to even things up, I should tell you that I personally control the media."

Actually I didn't say that. That's what I would have said if it were today's me in that Orange Nova. What I really said was probably better: "Be careful out there, Officer."

Thirty-nine years later, I'm thinking, God, I hope that guy made it to retirement.