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It happened, again.

This time, in the grocery line.

I’d grabbed a couple early evening, post Sunday matinee snacks and taken my place behind those who appeared to have the least number of items. Two guys, knit capped, the one slightly bearded, directly ahead of me were perusing the tabloid mags on the rack just behind them. As one commented to the other,  I noted the latest TIME special edition feature: “The Criminal Mind.”

Feeling a tad grandiose, I pointed to its title and ventured some crack about Italians all being corrupt. As expected, they turned to look at me. Tossing my olive skinned, brown haired head to one side, I demured:

“Well, not all of them.”

My own father, second generation Napolitan/Sicilian blend, had always maintained a flawless public testimony – or, so I’d always thought.

The more we chatted, the more gradually I noticed the telltale accent of a Latino coming from the more talkative of the two. And so, typically of me, I asked him.

“You Mexican?”

Reaching up to insert his card into the reader, he answered me. “Yep.”

Then, I did what I too often do. I asked the next question. And, I did it because I was born in 1957, raised in this town, and had grown to expect that asking would be acceptable. I said:

” You know Julio…Julio Reyes?”

Smiling, he said: “No….”

“Owns Latinos  — the restaurant??”

I was genuinely surprised. I thought everybody knew Julio. Or, at least, everybody who enjoyed real Mexican food. Like, Mexicans. Ergo, Julio.

The cashier, tall African American, young, bright-eyed….smiled, looked at the two Mexicans.

And, because, even though I’m an aging biddy I am still a quick study, I got it.

Looking right at him, I crowed: “Oh, I am SUCH a white girl!”

[ he was laughing, now ].

“I know….”All black people are related!”   [ he doubled over ]

“All Mexicans know each other, personally!”……

[ everyone chuckling ]

“All Italians are corrupt…….! “

The three men busied themselves. I rearranged my items on the conveyor.

“Well…….my little daddy was a sweetheart.”

I thought, again, about that moment when somebody I knew said he’d been told dad was the man. And I felt, again, just how much I did not want to believe it.

The two Mexicans finished their purchase. We all smiled at my transparency. I shimmered.

My turn, at the register. The young black man’s presence was too hard to resist. And, so I had to ask the next question, the one I always ask.

“You know, I taught school for twenty-five years. I had four thousand students. I still bet you might have been my…..what school did you go to?”

Nope. Didn’t teach there.

“What’s your last name?”

Nope. I’d gone to school with a woman with the name, but hers wasn’t recognized by him. In fact, he scratched the back of his head with one finger, averted his eyes, and mentioned that he was known by another family name. Still, I had to tell him the family names I knew. And, he was already no longer interested.

I felt sorry.

Sorry that I had been born in 1957. Sorry that I had done the thing, yet again, that would define me forever as the white girl who just had to ask all the questions that used to mean a willingness to generate conversation, create an atmosphere of casual openness and, most of all, express a genuine interest in finding the connections which linked people to one another. In this town, that used to mean not just family, but family origin. The generation which endures dismissal today used to know that people from certain parts of the world always settled in specific neighborhoods, and then stayed there. We all grew to know that they preferred to spend time with one another, largely because they shared their own language and secondly because they knew that staying close would keep everyone accounted for. And, our city was small. Each of these neighborhoods was block to block, side by side. We had Poles, Russians, and Czechs. We had Germans, and Irish. We had Italians, for miles. We had African Americans, which were called Negroes then. And, they all made their life purpose the sustenance of their people – its customs, its food, its dress, and its family names.

I wonder whether the young men who passed through that grocery line will give any of this another thought. Perhaps their parents will help them understand.

The cashier completed my sale and, as he handed me my receipt I thanked him, by his name. And, he smiled, again – brimming with authenticity, and inner strength. His smile came from deep within his heart and mind. And, his laughter had forgiveness all over it.

I’m glad about that.

Because, the next time I’m the white girl, I’ll probably do it all again.

 

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