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Stopping trains with words

Andrew Gmerek

This is how the conversation began.

“Those Mexicans keep coming up here and driving down the wages,” the first man said.

“Yeah,” replied the second man. “They keep driving down the quality of work, too. Someone that does a good job can’t find work because the Mexicans will come up here and do a mediocre job for a lot less. And that’s what the contractors want. They don’t care if it looks like #@$#@.”

I stood nearby listening to this drivel and was suddenly transported back to a moment in my life I call a “cringe event”. It’s a time I’m not proud of, and I know that if there is penance to be paid in the afterlife, I’ll be paying for this memory.

I was living in New York City at the time, in an Italian neighborhood in Queens, and I was working for the now-defunct Trans World Airlines. I was just out of college, and I was enjoying the freedom of my new-found life of travel and time spent in the Big Apple.

It was in New York, however, that I also learned one of my father’s sayings was true.

“The majority of people need someone to hate,” he said.

I hadn’t been in New York long when I wandered down to the neighborhood pizza joint for a bite to eat. When I walked through the door, there were only three other people in the restaurant. There were two young guys working the ovens and an African American man waiting at the counter.

Now I know that today I appear cosmopolitan – a man of the world – but back then, even though I considered myself street smart, I was still just a kid from Indiana, and I’d never seen the face of prejudice in my world. This was mostly due to the attitudes of my parents.

My father, a man who never spoke a word of hate against any group of people, once explained prejudice to me. He had grown up on the rough side of Akron, Ohio, and he said that if you are going to be prejudiced against anyone, be prejudiced against the guys coming to beat you up. Friends, he said, come in all colors, races, and religions, and they’re the ones who will stick by you in a fight.

Immediately after I walked into that pizza place, I was waited on. Being a polite kind of guy, I turned to the other patron to see if he had already ordered, but I was sharply asked again what I wanted to eat.

Thinking that maybe he had already been helped, I went ahead and ordered.

Then I turned around and noticed the guy looking confused, as if he had been waiting a long time to get some food. He looked around the place for a few more seconds, tried to get the attention of the guys behind the counter, and eventually slinked out the door.

I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know exactly what had happened. It was as if a little kernel of insight had plopped into my stomach, making me sick but without my knowing why.

Eventually I got my pizza and went home to eat. But when I bit into the second slice, I realized what had happened. The guys at the restaurant had refused service to the African American because of the color of his skin.

I lost my appetite.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time rehearsing what I would have said to those guys if the chance repeated itself, but I guess I was too much of a coward to go back and speak my mind. The anger, however, remained.

A little while ago I saw an interview with African-American author Maya Angelou, and she said that with the state of race relations in this country, she believed if they loaded up all the African Americans onto trains leaving for concentration camps, like they did to the Jews during WWII, she doubted if a single white person would stand up and say “Stop”. I’ve thought that over for a long time, remembering my silence, and I must admit I’ve often wondered what I would do.

But I got the chance to find out.

When the conversation started with “those Mexicans,” I pictured the train pulling out of the station with a thousand pairs of eyes staring at me from the slits in the boxcars.

The conversation ended abruptly when I told the two men to shut up.

Andrew Gmerek is a weekly columnist for the Summit Daily News.


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