I turned 71 yesterday. And I started on a project that I’ve been contemplating for a while. I’m going to try to take at least one photograph each day and post it here. If I wind up taking more than one, I’ll try to pick the best or most interesting. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of posting more than one if I can’t choose.
The picture for today (yesterday, actually; the pix will be posted the next day) is at the end of the following story, which sets the scene.
After Alex’s wedding in August, Joan and I went to Rochester to spend the night with the Wilsons. The next morning, we were sitting around the kitchen table, and the talk turned, for some reason that I don’t remember, to the deep roots of our white American racism; no matter how liberal we are or how hard we work to free ourselves from instinctively racist responses to events, those responses occur, and the best we can do is recognize them quickly, recognize them for what they are—harmful and delusional vestiges of our cultural upbringing—and try not to act on them but to act rationally instead.
Paul told the story of an incident that happened to him more than 40 years ago, when he was a grad student at the University of Illinois. He had been driving back to Cincinnati alone; it was evening; he’d stopped for gas in Lafayette, and in talking with the gas station attendant, revealed that he was on his way to Cincinnati. There were three other people in the station—as Paul described them, a very large black man with a powerful husky voice, a white woman, and another black man, smaller, lighter, wearing shades and a dashiki. The big guy approached Paul, told him that they’d heard he was on his way to Cincinnati. “Our car broke down,” the guy told Paul. “We’re musicians, and we have to get to a gig in Cincinnati; can you give us a ride.”
That’s when the culturally inculcated racism kicked in; first, with Paul’s instinctive fear; then, with his recognition that he couldn’t refuse without revealing the racism; and, finally, with his consequent decision: “Sure, I’ll give you a ride.”
Paul went on to describe the ride home; his diminishing terror as his passenger (the guy who had asked for the ride; the woman and the other guy sat in the back and, according to Paul, remained silent throughout the trip) proved to be a smart, entertaining traveling companion: knowledgeable, experienced, a good raconteur. Paul wound up, later that night, going with a friend to the club where his passenger and his group were playing. Paul’s friend left early, but Paul stayed until the club closed, and then went with his new friend to an after hours club for a little more music before the guy drove him home; Paul realized, as he was being driven home, that the black guy was just as frightened driving into a white neighborhood at 3:00AM as Paul had been driving into the musician’s black neighborhood earlier in the evening.
They never saw one another again; Paul had no idea what happened to the guy. But he remembered the guy’s name: Leroy something. Not Leroy Brown. “Leroy Jones, that was his name. And his band, I think, was Leroy and the Drifters, or something like that.”
“Not Leroy,” I said. “Lee Roi. And the band was Lee Roi and the Drivers.”
Here we are, two white guys sitting in a kitchen in Rochester, New York, and Paul’s telling me about this accidental meeting 40 years earlier, that had taught him a memorable lesson about his own racism. And I knew the guy in the story!
Lee Roi Jones is a pretty prominent guy in Cincinnati these days, with an insurance agency, a bail bonding business, multiple real estate properties, and a solid reputation as a nightclub operator. And he’s a lunch time regular at the Brew House, as am I. We’ve known each other casually for some years now. When I saw Lee Roi a few days later, I told him about my conversation with Paul. As my story unfolded, Lee Roi began to realize that the guy in the story was, in fact, him. And his jaw dropped. He remembered the evening vividly; it was, no doubt, as odd an experience for him as it had been for Paul. Lee Roi gave me his card and made me promise to give his number to Paul and ask Paul to call him.
I did that, and Paul did that, and they had a good conversation. Paul called Lee Roi again last week to tell him that he was coming to town for a baby shower that his ex-wife was giving for their daughter, and he and Lee Roi arranged to meet for lunch at the Brew House. Joan and I joined Paul and his wife Jo, and met Lee Roi and his old friend Kenny, and we had a spectacularly interesting and enjoyable lunch. Lee Roi and Kenny both tell great stories, and so does Paul, and we all laughed uproariously. And when the talk turned to where it all began, to the pervasive racism of our culture and its pernicious effects, Lee Roi and Kenny, once again, helped us white people understand that, while things have, indeed, changed since the sixties, the changes have not made things much better, and, in fact, have made some things worse. Kenny described being stopped, recently, in a rural county in Southern Michigan, for no other reason than that there were “zero blacks” in the county, and his mere presence on the road was sufficient cause for the police officer’s suspicion.
Lee Roi, for his part, had understood Paul’s fear on that long-ago evening. He had known, as Paul, had not, that Paul had nothing to fear from him. But he’d also known, as Paul, again, had not, that Paul did have a very legitimate cause for fear, which is that he was driving on Indiana state highways with two black men and a white woman in his car.That simple fact would have been more than enough cause for any state trooper, in that state, at that time, to stop them, throw them all in jail, and probably knock them around a bit to show them the error of their ways. Stupid white kid.
Lee Roi treated us all to lunch; it was payback to Paul for the ride, and it was my birthday treat.
So thanks, Lee Roi. Thanks for lunch, and for your friendship, and for your courage and your good stories and your good humor, and for hanging in there and making a good place for yourself in a society that doesn’t go out of its way to make any place at all for you, and for your patient teaching.
And here’s the picture I promised at the beginning, of the six of us at the Brew House. From left to right, Joan, Jo, Kenny, Lee Roi, Paul, and me.
Thanks, Danielle, for snapping such a great picture.