Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Common Exchange over Change

The black-white segregated world I knew as kid, the one that closed the local swimming pool rather than integrate in submission to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is radically changed. Radical does not mean swift. It has taken forty-five years.

In a sultry, stifling Atlanta, Georgia summer of '64 , I sulked over the prejudices of my parents and the community at large keeping me from swapping a quarter for an afternoon in that pool. All summers in the deep South I remember stifled in more ways than the experience of the oppressive humidity. Alas, the only places to escape the heat waving off car hoods and pavement was browsing comic books off the rack in the air-conditioned drug store or the city pool. Mr. McCurdy, the pharmacist, would only allow a nine year old to peruse the comics for a brief time without a glare and the pool, filled with that glorious crystal water, lay locked behind an eight foot high, chain-link fence. Mr. McCurdy did allow blacks to enter the drug store for their prescriptions through the back door. In that time defined by one hundred hating years between blacks and whites where the oppression of people was never escaped, what I witnessed four days ago would have been unthinkable even in a comic book fantasy.

We stopped for a break and fill-up at the cheapest station on our I-40 journey through eastern North Carolina. After paying at the pump, I entered the convenience mart for coffee. My daughter wanted some, as well. I shared the floor space before the multiple carafes and cappuccino machine with an American women of coffee-tone skin, about fifteen years my senior. She and I did the polite reach-around-one-another-while-honoring-personal-space dance, as she needed sugar from near the same spot I filled my daughter's cup with French vanilla; then we both needed lids at the same time.

Moments later, I stood behind her in the check-out line. The cashier of European descent might have been described as flesh-toned forty-five years ago, as if the woman in front of me purchasing coffee were not covered in flesh. The cashier announced the total owed for two coffees by the matron in front of me, who proceeded to count out the amount in change. A bare few moments passed, not enough mind you, to need a human breaking an awkward silence but enough to hold a comment.

"I like the Christmas mouse on your shirt," offered the cashier. (Yes, it is the middle of February, but you know those matrons can spit in the wind and wear purple.) My check-out line companion nodded acknowledgment of the compliment but finished counting. She looked the cashier in the eye while passing the handful of change, who answered while taking the change with an unusual, "Thank you." What made those last words unusual was the warmth I thought I detected.

Verifying the emotional level I sensed from the cashier, the matron replied genuinely, "You have a blessed day."

I stepped up to the counter feeling that moment, feeling the honesty and the nature of it. I recognized something in the spirit of the moment totally alien to what I knew about exchanges between people of varied colors in 1964. The cognitive words I spoke to the cashier became only a vehicle for a deeper bit of human involvement. I wanted to add to the spirit in which she had addressed the lady wearing a Christmas mouse, and whom then responded in kind to an opening which intended more than civility.

The incident was brief, warm and common. In that moment I saw a hint of the supernatural. I suspect both women are Christians--not a risky presumption in the Bible-belt. Even if that is not so, the supernatural element is that humans who have proven their separation from God in countless ways, including the racial hatred in which my youth steeped, choose to move beyond social civilities and enter genuine care in the common exchanges of life.

Yes, racism exists to this day. The Dixie war flag is seen occasionally flying in front of private houses. Such anachronisms do not alter the social change I am glad to be experiencing.


careyrowland said...

Yes, the times they have a-changed. Thank God.
And someday his love and glory will fill the earth. At that time we will sing with all those saints in eternity:

"You (Jesus) were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation."

Throughout history, many have, like our Saviour, shed their blood into the struggle against human cruelty and sin.

Until that day of fullness in his righteous kingdom, our encounters with his people are experienced one little shared smile, or one small kindness, or even one momentous deed, at a time.

Chip said...

Great post David.

ded said...

Thanks Carey and Chip for joining me here in the Wild Wood. It is always good to read a comment back from either of you!