A few years ago, I was home in the afternoon on a weekday when I noticed a large man in the cul-de-sac. He happened to be black, but I like to think I’m not racist in that regard because I would take note of any stranger in my cul-de-sac regardless of race. For the record, I was raised in a fairly racist home, probably typical for Clevelanders at that time. We lived on the West side, and the troubles with blacks were over on the East side, and never the ‘twain should meet. During my years there, only three or four black kids attended school, and one of those was a black Puerto Rican, which is entirely different.
So this black guy is hanging around the cul-de-sac. He looked a bit older than me so I didn’t feel threatened. I find myself far more nervous about a young man with tattoos and a thugster cap on his head hanging around regardless of their race. It’s not like I’m in an exclusively white subdivision or city. Our street, in fact, probably matches the national “mix” of race, except for Asians. We don’t seem to have any Asians on our street.
I invented an excuse to go get something out of the trunk of my car, and I hailed the man (the black man). He asks me if I want to buy some meat. It turned out he was a door-to-door meat salesman. Apparently, they deep freeze cuts of meat, load up coolers in the back of a truck, and drive around trying to sell it. He promised to give me a deal.
I wasn’t in the market for frozen meat at the time. We didn’t have a chest freezer, and really didn’t cook that much meat from the freezer. For whatever reason, we are bad about that, and things going in the freezer are more likely to go in the trash, so I was not shopping for more stuff to throw away.
I was not direct or firm in my response. I said something like, “I’m not sure if we need any steaks right now.” He stepped up closer to respond.
“Do you make the decisions in your house?” he asked.
“No, my wife discuss food purchases.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Are you a man? Do you wear pants? Are you telling me you can’t decide whether or not you want to take advantage of this great deal?”
I shrunk back from his approach. “I don’t think I want any meat right now.”
“Oh, I get it,” he said. “You just wanted to know what the big black man was doing on your street. You just wanted to make sure I wasn’t robbing people or selling drugs.”
“No, not at all,” I said.
“Well then do you want to buy some meat?”
“No,” I said.
“Well then forget you.”
But I could not forget him. Was I, in fact, still a racist? Had my family influence been so deeply ingrained, like a German in the 1950s still complaining of Israeli plots? Was I no better than all those white Americans that conveniently think of them as liberal, but are not themselves liberated from the fear that limits their thinking?
Another meat salesman stopped by this weekend. This guy was white, and looked to be the same age as the previous guy was back during that last sales call. It reminded me again of my fear of strangers, white or black, and my distrust of door-to-door salesman in general.
If I had simply bought the frozen flank steak, would I have not questioned my own integrity? I should have hugged him, and every door-to-door salesman, because any one facing the prospect of repeated refusals and constant failure, has far greater intestinal fortitude than I do. I don’t envy any of them that job, white or black, nor any ware they might sell, be it meat, a vacuum, or new windows.
And nowadays, it’s all made in China anyway. The only thing you can reliably sell that isn’t made in China is yourself, unless you happen to be Chinese.