Added: Thu. Jan 15, 2009 8:57am
When I was doing graphic design work for a local printer near Orlando, Florida, we had a film stripper who set up our work to make plates for the presses. He was a really good guy and we got along quite well. I was from New Jersey and he was a Florida native. A lot of people from here have a fair amount of resentment towards people from other parts of the country, especially northerners. If you were from Alabamee or Mississippa, that was OK. New York? New Jersey? Forget it. Ron and I used to tease each other about northern and southern differences - the Civil War, the South Rising Again! and other issues. It was all done in a good natured, friendly manner with no implied intent. Whenever he brought up some Yankee thing to tease me about, I always had a standard reply, one he could not defend, “Well, at least I didn’t have a hangin’ tree in my back yard.” Ron was not a prejudiced man.
Ron lived in Apopka, which is a relatively rural town northwest of Orlando. Plenty of the deep south has areas of racial hatred, including parts of Apopka. I’m not trying to single out any community. They’re everywhere, and most of the town is not like that, but there’s a long history, steeped in racial bias and, yes, hangin’ trees that should have been chopped down a long time ago. Ain’t been no hangins’ around these here parts in a long time, yet there still exists a small faction of folks who believe the old rules of the deeply segregated south should never and shall never change. I remember seeing an abandoned water fountain for colored folks when I moved here in 1981.
Soon after moving to Orlando, I found a neighborhood restaurant with a nice bar in the suburban town of Winter Park, called Harrigan’s. My sister used to work there. It’s been gone for years now, but one of the bartenders ended up buying a place in downtown Orlando, on the corner of Orange and Pine, called Tanqueray’s. It had been around for a long time and was once the vault part of a bank. You walk down a flight of stairs from street level, step inside, and immediately feel the warmth of the friendly crowd. Many of the regulars, at least, back when I had opportunities to go, were professionals who stopped by for a drink or two to unwind and socialize. It was known as a hangout for lawyers and it always seemed to be a well mannered, intellectual crowd. I don’t go downtown very often, but if I do, I try to stop by, since I’ve known Dan a long time and he usually has a few good jokes to tell.
I had to go into the city one particular day a number of years ago and I figured, why not drop by and say hello. I took a seat at the bar, near the front door, and we exchanged some friendly banter. The place was pretty busy, so Dan and I didn’t have much time to talk. Next thing I know, some guy is standing to my immediate left. Somehow, he didn’t quite fit in with the rest of that crowd. He ordered a draft beer and said to me, “Yup, I was at Whiskey River at 7 o’clock this morning.” Whiskey River is a liquor store on S. Orange Blossom Trail, not one of the nicest parts of the city. It has a reputation for catering to hardcore drinkers - the labor pool and seldom employed types who live off whatever money they can scrape up to buy booze and cigarettes. Here, standing right next to me was one of those guys. I have no idea why he chose me out of the crowd to enlighten.
“So, what did you have for breakfast?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not.
“I had me a 3 Marlboro omelet.”
“Hmm, OK. Sounds good.” I believed him.
“Yup,” he responded and then went on to say, “I’m a card carrying member of the KKK.”
“No. No way.”
I had never met anyone even remotely affiliated with a white supremacy organization. “OK. Let me see your membership card.”
“Ain’t got one. Don’t need one.”
He didn’t come across as some sort of nasty fellow. He didn’t seem to have gone in there to start trouble. He told me he lived in the outskirts of Apopka and I think he just wanted someone from the big city to talk to. I thought to myself, why not give him a chance to speak his mind. I will try to rationalize everything he says and come back with an appropriate response. “Really, how can you have so much hatred for black people inside?” I don’t think African American was in vogue back then.
“They’re animals. Damn n*ggers are monkeys.” I believe he was starting to test me. He meant what he said, yet I sensed a certain curiosity, as if he was questioning his own tenets with each puff of his cigarette.
“Animals? You gotta be kidding me. What if you had sex with a monkey, could you get it pregnant?”
“What if you had sex with a black woman, could you get her pregnant?”
“Yeah, of course. That’s a dumb question.”
“Dumb? Really? What you’re saying is that if black people are monkeys and you could get that type of animal pregnant, then you are a monkey, too. We’re all a bunch of monkeys.” He had no smart answer. With everything he stated, I had a response. At one point, I asked him, “What if you were in a horrible accident and needed a transfusion and found out later it was the blood of a black man? What would you do? Would you try to return it? Would you turn color? Would you tell your card carrying members that you are now tainted with the blood of an animal? Would they hang you?” No responses to my queries made much sense. I don’t think he really knew what to say, but I could tell he was grasping everything we were discussing. He was trying to understand the other side. I brought up the “be they yellow, black or white” song from Sunday School days. Many southern racists are borne from religions that preach weird and twisted interpretations of the Bible. Most of it comes from upbringing, though. I asked him about black heroes who had saved plenty of white hide during the war, World War II in this case. A lot of us wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for good ol’ blackie.
The conversation had taken on a kind of flow. He wanted me to do most of the talking and it was never a heated exchange. We showed each other respect. We could have almost been friends had it not been for the racial thing. Certainly, I would never judge him for his status in life or how much of an education he had, but I surely did question his morals and prejudices with a vengeance.
Soon, our discussion began to wind down. “I have one final question.” The timing couldn’t have been better. “What if we were on a deserted island, you, me and a really good looking black woman,” and just like that the front swung open and a group of very fine looking young women sauntered in, one of whom was black. “HER!” I exclaimed, looking directly at her. She didn’t see or hear a thing.
“I’d kill you, not her. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” I knew what he meant.
“That’s rather selfish of you, don’t you think? You mean to tell me you’d kill a white man to save a black woman? Wait a minute. Doesn’t this go against your entire credo? Something you’ve hated all your life? What would the KKK say about that? Kill a white to save a black?”
“You’re confusing me, man, you’re confusing me.” Aha! Gotcha, I thought to myself. “You know, you’re right.” he continued, “Yup, you are, but I’ll never tell my friends about this. I can’t. They’re my friends and they’d kill me.” He had listened to enough, I reckon. “Thanks. Gotta go.” He took one final gulp of his beer, we shook hands and off he went. The crowd immediately broke into applause. I had no idea anyone had been paying attention to our conversation.
Occasionally, I think about that guy who went back to the hangin’ trees that only sway from the wind these days. Back to the fiery crosses of days gone by. I hope and pray those days will one day be gone forever and the warm southern breezes of brotherhood sweep through the minds of people like him everywhere. I can dream, can’t I?