Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pull Up a Stool and Sit Down

Through the years I have made countless trips back to Arkansas to visit my mother and none of them have been what I'd call easy trips. While living in Los Angeles, such trips required air travel with a change of planes, usually in Dallas, followed with a car rental and a 2-hour drive from the Little Rock airport. Even then it was probably faster than it is now by car from Austin.

I have flown there from Austin and it still requires a change of planes in either Dallas or Houston and ultimately I figure it saves only about 2 hours over driving. Most importantly, I don't have to deal with airport security bullshit, repacking all my hair care products into approved containers, and hoping I don't have a hangnail en route because I don't have my nail clippers.

Regardless of the travel method, the stress doesn't end upon arrival. As with this most recent trip, I usually drive to Little Rock first because it's faster and easier, and I can spend a night with a friend from high school before heading to my mother's house the next day feeling a bit more refreshed.

The older I get, the more uncomfortable I am being away from my own bed, my own bathroom, and my own routine. I did sleep fairly well at my friend's house, despite having her clock radio alarm go off at midnight, and me hitting the snooze button twice before getting up to turn on a light so I could figure out where the off button was located. Then I was up at 5:30 to quickly shower and dress for my trip.

Along with the usual travel anxiety, I was meeting up that morning with Ellen, another friend from long before high school whom I hadn't see in over 30 years. That was also making me feel somewhat apprehensive. Fortunately, that meeting went great and was one of the highlights on my trip! After chatting for half an hour or so I went on to my mother's house.

My mother hugged me, I put my suitcase in the bedroom and returned to the kitchen and sat down. She immediately went on a tirade about Obama and the bailouts, how unfit he is to be leading this nation, etc. etc. It was bad enough when Bush was president, and although she didn't like a lot of what he was doing, she wasn't real vocal in her opposition to it, and she still thought of him as a fine Christian man, and CUTE! (Yes, I always had to suppress my gag reflex on that one!)

I have a hard time coming to terms with the rationale for such vehement opposition to Obama when he's barely been in office for 100 days. I have issues with several things he had done and said, and I have issues with things he hasn't done. But I'm not stomping up and down, frothing at the mouth while murmuring about socialism.

It is one thing to see clips of right-wing Negrophobes on television ranting about Obama; it is quite another to walk into your mother's house and hear a similar tirade coming from her lips. And it's not like I wasn't aware of her racism and her upbringing! It's still a shock to hear.

After that initial outburst from her and my retort, we eased into more congenial conversation of a non-political nature, thankfully. We had lunch and then I made an unsuccessful attempt at taking a nap.


Around 1999, txrad and I made a quick trip to Vegas to visit a friend we'd worked with in the Los Angeles days. If I recall, it may have been the last time we'd see her before she died. txrad and I hadn't smoked cigarettes in at least seven years, and we'd only recently begun having wine and the occasional margarita after seven years being alcohol-free.

Knowing that our friend we were visiting was a smoker and enjoyed a cocktail or three, and with Vegas being what it is, I had already harbored an unspoken thought of sneaking a cigarette here and there while in Vegas. Then once we were there, I was surprised that txrad brought it up by saying he was going to have a cigarette.

And we did. And we drank. And we gambled. And we held cigs in one hand and cocktails in the other. We had a blast.

It was a couple of days after returning home, and I distinctly remember the moment one evening in the living room, when I said, "I want a cigarette." I suppose the reason why I remember that moment so clearly is because I've not stopped smoking again since that night. It was a habit I should have left on the Strip along with the gambling.

Stress has since become a trigger for a nicotine craving. As I was gearing up for my Arkansas trip, I told myself I was not taking cigarettes along. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, so I was going to make the Friday before my departure as smokeless as possible. My goal was to not have a cigarette that morning until after I had returned from my 9:45 appointment to drop the car off for maintenance. That didn't work.

I awoke at 3:30 that morning having travel anxiety and even being nervous about taking the car to the shop. I went to the kitchen for some water and saw my half-smoked cigarette from the night before. Where's the logic in trying to quit smoking when I leave myself half a cigarette sitting out? So I smoked it.

When I awoke again and got up at 6:00, I had already broken a promise to myself so I had another. Besides, I was stressed. I was also starting to realize I was probably going to break another promise and take some smokes with me to Arkansas. But I was NOT going to smoke at my mom's house; I was sticking with that promise.

After my failed attempt at a nap at mom's house on Sunday afternoon I got up to find her sleeping on the porch with a newspaper in her hand. Even opening the creaky screen door didn't wake her. So I slipped back in the house and out the back door for a quick smoke.

After she arose we decided to go for a drive around town which is customary when I visit. I need to hear about who died in that house, who had a stroke in this one, and which house is now vacant and for sale because the occupant is now in the nursing home. We pass by a dozen or more buildings, virtually all of them vacant and decaying, which bring back a torrent of vivid happy memories from my childhood when the town was actually thriving. My mother then pointed to a restaurant downtown which appeared to be busy, and said, "that's a nigger restaurant."

Since almost no one reading this blog has even been to my hometown, let me put this in perspective for you. The town has very few places to eat that are decent. Most of the options are on the highway, not downtown. There's a Subway sandwich joint out there, probably a crappy little pizza place, and there was a new Mexican restaurant before it burned. There used to be a Chinese restaurant on the highway but I didn't notice if it was still there or not.

Downtown has a drug store where they serve sandwiches on the weekdays, but not on Saturday and I think they are closed on Sundays. There's just nothing downtown! The building which houses the "nigger restaurant" was for many years a locally-owned diner which was named the "Ritz." That closed down a few years ago, another restaurant may have eventually opened there but closed. The fact that somebody went in and opened a restaurant which is not only busy and convenient, but open on Sunday would seem to be a matter of civic pride, not shame and disgust because of the skin pigmentation of the owners.

It was probably at this moment when I began to question just how long my visit here would last. Instead of staying until Wednesday or Thursday, I was now thinking Tuesday at the latest.

Once back at our house from the tour of the decrepit little town, my mother began talking about how she is unable now to get out and work in her flower beds and pull weeds. She mentioned that a friend of hers has a beautiful back yard but paid someone to do it, and then came another bomb: "She had a nigger man do it, and I just don't want a nigger in my house."

Funny. It didn't seem to be an issue in the 1960s when she had a black maid come several times a week to clean her house. But I've always though that was more of a "keeping up with the Joneses" attempt at maintaining our level in our social caste since many of her friends had slaves black housekeeping help employed at ridiculously low rates of pay. (This was before the influx of Mexicans and Central American nannies who have a slightly lighter skin tone.)

All kinds of things were now clicking together in my head and I could almost hear the various pieces of the puzzle snapping in place. She knew I didn't want to hear any Obama-bashing so she was getting her racist frustrations out in other ways. She didn't like the "nigger restaurant" being just 2 blocks from her house, she didn't want a "nigger man" cleaning up her yard, and she sure as hell didn't want a nigger president that socialist in the White House.

I heard this kind of language growing up from people in the town, from friends and their families, and from my own. Between the 70s and the 90s it began to temper somewhat. Obviously it didn't disappear, it just became less public and more private. And somehow, the election of Barack Obama has caused people like my mother to crack wide open, throwing themselves back in time; not to the 1970s, but right back to 1957! They are so adamantly racist they are willing to sacrifice just about anything to stake that white power flag in the ground make their feelings known, be it their homes, their yards, their dying towns, and perhaps even more.

As my mother was preparing dinner, I amused myself by walking around the house snapping photos of various nick-nacks she has acquired over the years and displays in her house.

And as we all know, them black folks sure loves them some watermelon!

Ironically, my mother loves it too and could eat a whole one while standing at the kitchen sink.

In all the years I have made a yearly trek back to Arkansas, I have never been as troubled and perplexed as I was on this trip. It is a lot to absorb and digest. And yet, I cannot allow myself to feel towards my mother the way I feel about the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

Ellen, during our brief visit, said we cannot change them right now. This is all they know, and it is normal to them. My mother is but one of perhaps millions of people who grew up white in hundreds of small towns just like this one across the deep South and elsewhere, raised in a Christian religion which never really liked to asked the simple question, "What would Jesus do," and never had the benefit of an education or a work experience in which they developed friendships with people different from themselves.

I refuse to believe that my mother, deep down in her heart, really is this angry, or this racist. She is a kind and loving woman who does not like change, and wasn't really comfortable when black people were invited by the preacher into her church, despite the fact that the church (which was founded by my father, by the way) is located in what was called "colored town" during more civil times than these. And I can't help but juxtapose this with the "nigger restaurant" located downtown which has drawn her ire.

She carries baggage imposed on her from childhood by a father, also a decent and honest man, but one who didn't even like shaking hands with black people. This has been going on for centuries and will take centuries more to run its course, assuming it ever will.

I made the decision late on Sunday to return to Austin on Monday morning. I was feeling confused and longing to be back in my comfortable environs. Besides, it had rained all month and was continuing to rain so I could not have done the yard work she wanted even if I had stayed another day.

Around 9:15 I went to bed, hoping to arise by 5:30, have a quick breakfast and coffee, and then hit the road.

Thoughts were still being processed in my head as I tried to sleep. I was feeling hurt and disgust. And having not only met Ellen earlier that morning, but also her partner, a beautiful and witty black woman, I kept wondering how my mother would react to that double-whammy.

I had slept for perhaps an hour when I woke up. I checked the clock and it was only 11:15 PM. I tossed and turned and finally fell asleep before being awakened again just after midnight by the loudest freight train I've ever heard. After several minutes of that, just as the train sounds were growing faint as it headed away from town, I was jolted by a clap of thunder followed by more pouring rain.

During the night there was another train incident, then another. And another storm. Around 3:30 AM, I got up and had to sneak out into the backyard for a stress-relieving smoke. I managed to quietly find the key to the deadbolt on the back door (there be Negroes in the neighborhood!), and as soon as I set one foot on the back deck the exterior motion-detection lights came on. Thank God it wasn't accompanied by sirens! I lit up a cigarette and paced across the rain-soaked gravel driveway which crunched loudly beneath my feet like several inches of snow during a hard freeze. I crept quietly back into the house, locking the door and carefully placing the deadbolt key exactly as I had found it, and went back to bed. I finally awoke at 5:45 and got up for breakfast.

Another side-effect of travel for me is constipation. I think it has to due with a variety of factors: a change in routine, change in diet, sitting in a vehicle for 8 or 9 hours, stress, whatever. But I had not had a decent bowel evacuation since I left Austin two days earlier.

I visited with my mother while eating blueberry muffins and sipping two cups of coffee, then I loaded the car with my stuff and hit the road.

About 50 minutes later, just as I had crossed the Louisiana state line, I realized I needed to pee. "Like a horse" as the saying goes. I had just passed a couple of 18-wheelers about 2 miles behind me which is no easy feat on a 2-lane road in a rain storm. I didn't want them to catch up to me and pass me so I pulled over and decided to make this a fast one. As I urinated I began forcing it out faster than is natural in order to speed things up; I could already see the headlights approaching behind me. It was at that moment that I decided to let loose with a fart or two. Big mistake.

I quickly returned to the car and sped away before the 18-wheelers had reached me, and I thought to myself, "I might need to check my shorts when I get to a gas station" even though I really didn't think I had done anything serious. You know, just the likely "skid marks" as the kids used to say in school.

It was about an hour later when I reached Monroe, Louisiana where I would hook up with I-20 to take me west to Texas. I stopped at a service station and went to the restroom to relieve myself of coffee again and remembered I needed to check myself. I popped into a stall and lowered my shorts. Oh my God. Let's look on the bright side: I was no longer constipated! I reached into the black toilet paper dispenser only to realize there was nothing there but an empty roll.

I scooted out of the stall for some paper towels near the sink. Again, nothing. No paper products for hygiene were to be found here! I took off my heavily soiled underwear and used them to clean myself up as best I could and then stuffed the offensive garment into a pocket on my cargo shorts and returned to my car as if everything was completely normal. I put the underwear into a plastic bag in my trunk and proceeded on down the road until I could find an establishment which I hoped would have the proper amount of paper products in the restroom.

I grabbed by duffel bag which contained the previous day's attire and quickly headed into a restroom, avoiding eye contact with anyone lest they read my mind. I got myself cleaned up as best I could and changed into the cargo shorts I had worn while driving up the previous day. I mean, come on; did I need to put on anything clean? Cleaner than what I was wearing would clearly be a huge improvement.

Having dealt with that embarrassing situation, I was ready to hit the road again for Texas, and ultimately, Austin.

I'm not sure when I'll visit my mother again, but I hope it's not another year. I really should do this more often, not less. I need to love this woman who bore me, and enjoy what few remaining years I can with her, despite her flaws, and mine. Maybe I can't change her attitudes, but I can certainly set a positive example.

In the meantime, I can honestly say I wish President Barack Hussein Obama nothing but great success. It probably won't alter racism in any way, but it will nonetheless prove a point. In fact, I could argue it already has.

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