Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A bagger, a bigot and a story worth telling

The lovely Miss Wendy and I were out and about yesterday, running errands and attempting to ignore the heat and humidity hovering about the Land of Cotton. We managed to beat an afternoon rain storm to our neighborhood supermarket where, it seems, we spend our free time and free cash every couple days in search of icy and tasty treats.

Since we had a plan before entering the store, it only took a few moments to gather up the items on our list and make our way to a checkout aisle. Wendy, as usual, waited for the cashier to do her thing while I stood around in that useless sort of way that husbands often do; glancing about, slack jawed and bored, just this side of comatose.
And then something caught my attention.
The guy handling the bagging chores seemed all atwitter, his arms waving about as he talked with the nearby clerk. I couldn’t actually make out what he was saying but I could see that he was agitated.
Truth to tell, what I mostly noticed is that he was talking a lot and not bagging any of our groceries. Impatience, clearly, is another guy thing and something that I think about working on when the idea of self-improvement crosses my mind. But I digress.
The man continued his story and then I heard a woman standing behind Wendy in line gasp and stammer, “He said what?” That got my attention and I finally focused on the bagger and the story he was detailing.

I’ve seen this man around the market for years. He’s probably just the other side of 70; a little bent with time, wrinkles spread across his face that, as often as not, is filled with warmth and a toothy smile. We’ve only shared a few words, but what I recall is his always addressing me as “young man” and Wendy as “young lady.” It’s a southern thing!

His name is Howard and, after finishing up his tale, he took only a moment or three to bag up our groceries, then offer a grin and remark, “Here you are, young man.”
As we walked from the air-conditioned market into the blast furnace of summer, Wendy told me the bits and pieces of the conversation I had missed. It seems that only moments earlier, Howard had begun bagging up a man’s groceries when the customer turned to him and said, “Boy, don’t touch my food.” It was clear from his tone what he meant.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Howard is black.
It took just that bit of context to help me revisit all that I had witnessed – the waving arms, angry and melancholy tone, bent shoulders and world-weary expression that flickered across Howard’s face. It also helped me understand what the woman behind Wendy had offered up only moments earlier, after asking what had been said.

“I apologize,” the woman said. “I apologize for what that man said.”
Howard shook his head and shrugged his shoulders, a gesture that seemed to suggest no apology was needed. He had simply walked away from the bigot after telling the jerk he would pray for him.

This little bit of drama seemed to fit nicely with all the talk in the last few days about Paula Deen and her admitted use of racial slurs in the past. The idea that such bigotry is dead and buried across Dixie is, of course, nonsense. Just ask Howard.
The moment also had me thinking back to one of the pivotal scenes in the movie “42”, the Hollywood biopic released a few months ago, celebrating Jackie Robinson’s role as the first black player in the modern era of Major League Baseball.

At a critical juncture, as he’s being considered for the move that would open the door for blacks into big-time sports, Robinson asks: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, responds: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

I don't think we'll be seeing any biopics about a supermarket bagger anytime soon, but I'm pretty sure that Howard and Jackie Robinson share more in common than just the color of their skin. Guts, it turns out, are as important in the 21st Century as it was over six decades ago.

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