The first day we ever spoke, Edward (not his real name) and I passed by each other as I was leaving the YMCA gym and he was just arriving. He looked at me and said, “I hope you have a good day”. I responded with a “Mine’s already going to be better than yours!!” What I meant was, “I have just finished my workout and you (you poor guy) are about to endure an hour of torture, otherwise known as exercise, while my torture is over for the day.”
When I didn’t get a response, I glanced up and looked into his eyes. I had a big smile on my face after delivering (what I had surmised) was an obviously cute authentic quip. Instead of a smile, I saw a fearful look on his face. An almost terrorized look. I was stunned. I was trying to be funny; he obviously experienced something else totally. Instead of stopping to explain myself, I hurried on my way out without saying anything else.
As the day went on I couldn’t get his haunting look out of my head. What did he think I said? What did he think I meant? He obviously didn’t get the point that I was teasing. (Teasing is a “tool” which I too often use in my feeble attempt to interact/make connection with others.) A dozen times that day I was drawn back to his eyes. Trying to figure out what had happened. Was it him? Was it me?
Then it dawned on me. The day before we, as a country, had elected our current leader. Our encounter was the day after. As I thought about it, Edward is very clearly a member of one of those groups of people who had been targeted, demonized, vilified and otherwise traumatized simply because of the color of his skin during the election process. While I have enough of a sense that he would have experienced those kinds of things before, what was different about this was that the very people who had done those things, instead of ending up in someone’s dog house, ended up in the White House along with the support of millions of his cabal.
I later learned that he had also been historically targeted because of his sexual orientation and economic status. And here I was, a man he didn’t know, a man who had glibly tossed those words at him; those words coming out of the mouth of a member of the dominate privileged culture, living in the South. I could have been easily seen as one who was overtly mocking him, letting him know that things were about to get a lot worse because “we” had won; that we no longer had to hide our prejudices and biases anymore, and perhaps in a not so veiled way, even threatening him.
I was painfully aware of the news that people were already putting into overt action their ethnic and racial biases and prejudices within hours of the election. I felt awful. I hoped that I had a chance to see him again. To fix things. Every day for the next week I looked for him. I never saw him. Two weeks went by, no Edward. I wondered if my “taunt” had scared him so badly that he wouldn’t ever come back.
Then, gratefully, about a month later I saw him again. Uncharacteristically for me (I’m a private kind of guy) in front of several other men, I walked up to him and told him I owed him an apology. He listened and then responded by letting me know that what I had feared I had done, was exactly what happened to him. He had experienced some reluctance about coming back among us almost exclusively WASP folks. He accepted my apology and I asked if would be willing to join me for breakfast sometime. He agreed. We met for breakfast at “Noshville”; Nashville’s imitation of a New York deli. He arrived on his bicycle, which I judged as “he’s a progressive, environmentally sensitive kind of guy, etc.” and I felt a little guilty for arriving by car, even though I drive a hybrid.
I learned about Edward. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Edward, at the time, was floating between being homeless and having a room to stay in. He was working, when he could find work, as a day laborer. He was able to go to the YMCA only because of a scholarship program that they offered. He was trying to finish his college degree. I discovered how bright he was. He, who barely has a room to stay in, was and is an activist in the North Nashville community that he grew up in. He is a volunteer community organizer. He attends city council meetings. He is an advocate for the services so necessary for the disadvantaged to survive. He was recently a write-in candidate for state representative. He’s an active member of half a dozen community service organizations.
After four or five breakfasts he wrote me a note and told me how important our meetings were to him and would I be willing to make a commitment to continue them. I said “sure”. I honestly had (and still have) no idea what value I was providing. All I do, for the most part, is listen. So, we’ve continued to meet for breakfast. He tells me of his latest plans. Of his latest doings. Of his latest visions of how things COULD be. He lobbies for affordable housing. He tells me of his latest meeting with city council members. Of his upcoming meetings with his state representative. Of his testimony at city council budget meetings to support the hospital services for the people in his neighborhood. He tells me of his progress towards his degree.
He rode his bicycle to our meetings for a long time, now he no longer has his bicycle. He rides the bus. All he ever has for breakfast is a bowl of fruit and glass of water. I got a written note a few weeks ago, telling me that he loves me. How grateful he is that I am in his life. How important it is that he has someone to listen to him. Edward is constantly being asked to leave meetings and jobs and organizations. For example, he is no longer welcome at the YMCA because (I’m speculating) he spoke to them of the lack of access for people who could least afford to be there and a few other management issues he felt they needed to pay attention to. He is one of those in a group who speaks early, directly, unafraid, and bluntly to unfairness, to stupidity, to injustice and to waste. He tells me these things.
At our last meeting I said near the end of our time together, “You are quite the provocateur, aren’t you?” He smiled. “Your way of trying to create change is 180 degrees the opposite of how I try to create change.” He said, “I guessed that you and I were different that way” and smiled. I said, “You are the squeaky wheel, while I try to do it in a quiet, subtle, under-the-radar way.” (Most of the time; but when I get adequately riled up, I am not so quiet and usually end up like Edward, no longer a welcome member of THAT group.) I said, “You are provocative, and you know it and deliberately use that method, don’t you?” He just smiled.
I had the urge to say, “You know, if you would just tone things down a bit, things might go better for you.” I stopped myself. My ‘quiet’ way hasn’t been all that successful in creating meaningful change for people. My people. His people. Any people.
Someone once said that just because we are on the right side of history, doesn’t mean that we win. Maybe his way is the better way. At least it is for him. It probably is for the people that he calls his community, because throughout our country’s history, it has been the squeaky wheel that got the grease, the squeaky wheel that created change. The marches, the sit-ins, the demonstrations, the raised fists, the bended knee. One could argue our country’s own independence was a result of squeaky wheels. Slavery. Resistance to forced assimilation of our Native peoples. Those changes didn’t occur by playing nice, being quiet and “yes-sir-ing”.
It might be in my/our best interest at this point in history to make more noise about the things that matter. Perhaps it is easier to speak up when one has nothing much to lose. I have a hunch though, that even if Edward had a lot of “stuff”, he would still be poking injustice in the eye. I believe that Edward has a lot of the “Right Stuff”. More than I.
I did say “Be careful, because there is another saying that goes, “It’s the buzzing fly that gets swatted”. A big grin swept across his face and he belly laughed. He and I were, in that moment, without needing to say anything, reminded that “progress”, especially social, racial, and economic justice, is quite often littered by the bodies of squeaky wheels. Go Edward!!!!!
After the last national election, I vowed to become more a part of the answer to our nation’s problem. I wasn’t sure how that would manifest itself. Apparently, for one thing, it meant Edward would become a part of my life. I still don’t have any idea how this is helping him, but if I am to believe Edward (and I do) it does, and I will carry on.