What Would Be and What Is

Last Monday I spent most of my morning waiting around for my local TelComm technician to show up and finally get my Internet up and running at the new place, thus ensuring I could continue to Netflix and Hearthfire as much as my little soul desires [note: it desires a lot].

As is typically the case with waiting on TelComm technicians, he finally showed up in the last ten minutes of the four-hour appointment window, but I didn’t terribly care, I had the day off and being up that early gave an opportunity to take a significant bite out of the book I’d been reading. Out of the company van stepped a young black man, denim shirt a couple of sizes too big, Leafs hat cocked to the side. After he checked the lines at the side of the building I brought him up to the apartment.

“Hey Jordan, what novel are you reading?”
“Oh, it’s not a novel, it’s a biography. About a novelist, so that’s pretty much the same thing, though.”
“Yeah? You a writer?”
“Heh. Trying to be.”

I walk him into the apartment, he susses out the connections, stepped out to work some magic around the block, came back and told me to grab my laptop. I open my Macbook and start scanning for the network.

“Are those things good for video editing?” he asks me.
“Supposedly. I’ve done a bit here and there, nothing too extravagant, though. But they say these are the machines that make it really easy, you know?”
“They’re expensive though, huh?”
“Ha, yeah. This was the result of a lot of saving and a lot of birthday and holiday charity.”
“Yeah, man, cause you know my woman, she does a lot of videos on YouTube, right? She’s got like half a million views or something? I don’t know anything about that shit, I’m not on YouTube, Facebook, none of that. But she’s doing her thing, you know? She got a birthday coming up, says she needs a new laptop to really step all that up, you know? But man, like, twelve hundred dollars, though?”
“Yeah. Though you can always get a PC with the same specs for a lot less, it’s just a style thing.”
“Well, that’s her thing, though, right, man? She does these like, make-up videos? Like, showing girls how do apply it and stuff. Here, I’ll show you.”

I shit you not, friends. He spent at least 20 minutes showing me photos and videos of his fiancée doing her makeup tutorials. It was actually kind of cool, she does both high fashion and zombie/horror designs, which I’d never seen before. And the dude wasn’t lying, she’s got like 10,000 subscribers, hundreds of followers on Instagram…she’s doing her thing.

The installation’s wrapping up, he asks me for a pen so he can jot down his contact info in case of any problems. I can’t find one lying around so I grab one of the pair I keep clipped to my satchel, for pretentious Moleskine writing and the like.

“Thanks, money,” he says as he starts to write his name. He stops, suddenly. “Yo, this pen is SICK, dude!”
I start coughing on my laughter, “You have no idea how much it makes my day to hear you say that.” I take my pens seriously, what do you want?
“Dude, like, I’m about to write my full name on here, and I never do that, I just want to keep writing with this thing.”

He hands me the sheet with his info, asks me where he can find some lunch in the neighbourhood on the cheap and shakes my hand. Honestly, my whole heart is warmed by the encounter, to meet the cool guy who hooked up my Internet and shared my love of a good pen. And then this happened.

I’d left the apartment door open because he’d been running up and downstairs for equipment. Now, the hallways in my building are ceramic tile creating a sort of echo chamber effect throughout, and the doors all seem to have very loose hinges, meaning my neighbours are always inadvertently slamming their doors, the sound of which gets broadcast all around the building. And that’s what happened as I was shaking the technician’s hand. Someone on the second floor was stepping out, didn’t catch the door as it was closing and a loud POP! could be heard from my apartment one storey up. And when it happened, his whole demeaner changed for a moment. His grip tightened, his eyes grew wide and darted to the door.

“Yo, what was that?”
‘Huh? Oh, nothing man. Someone just slammed their door downstairs.”
“Oh!” he starts laughing, nervous and embarrassed. “Man, for a second there I was like…like, I don’t know.”

It takes a minute for my muddled brain to connect the dots: Oh my God! He thought it was a gunshot.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since he left, and what that says about the differing experiences between races. The writer/scholar/intellectual Michael Eric Dyson, in one of my favourite essays on the subject, once took aim at what he called the “Liberal Theory of Race,” the one that attempts to convince us that deep down, we’re all the same. It’s Dyson’s belief, and I’m inclined to agree with him, that such a viewpoint chooses to ignore, “…the irrefutable reality of race. Because it conceives of race as merely a part of one’s broader ethnic identity, liberal race theory is unable to make sense of the particular forms of oppression generated primarily by racial identity.”

An idea fully on display as I shook hands with my technician. To me, even if I didn’t know it was a door slamming, it would never occur to me that a loud popping noise could be a gunshot. But for him, it’s in the realm of possibility. Whether that’s a result of his own social conditioning or personal experience I don’t know. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. He comes from a place where that kind of violence occurs to him, I come from a place where it never even boards my train of thought. And we can get along, have our chats about the fiancées, the appreciation of a quality pen, all that. But there will always be a gulf that we won’t ever be able to fully cross. All we can do is acknowledge it exists, because that might be the only way white and black folks can ever really fully understand each other.

[Jonah Lehrer confession: I made points similar to the ones found in here in a post for the University of Windsor newspaper in 2007. Since no one’s paying me for this, I reserve the right to recycle to a new audience.


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