Tuesday, March 7, 2017. The 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
A white man in his mid-thirties is driving a bucket of bolts hooptie held together by rolls of sticky duct tape. The radio works fine. He’s halfway listening to 93.7 WORD, a local, conservative talk radio station. The subject is the historical hike from Selma to Montgomery. There were three marches altogether: five days covering fifty-four miles. He, however, has only three minutes to arrive at a soup kitchen still four miles away.
Though he volunteers his time, timeliness is still important. The people will line the street like a march. They’re hungry. But southern drivers are very slow and never observe a speed lane. A wagon train has formed in both lanes, progressing at a slow crawl because of cyclers in helmets and tight, shiny pants: insectile, praying mantises on wheels. He might as well be walking like those determined folk so many years ago. His only chance is a sharp right into a housing development even the cops fear, rattle over a few speed bumps, exit out the back, on through two traffic lights, then—boom—he’ll be there. Maybe a minute late.
He’s almost out of gas. The gauge points to E. There’s petrol across the street from the soup kitchen. He’ll reach his destination on fumes.
He makes the adjustment, makes the sharp right. The radio host is addressing racial profiling. The word hooptie is employed. The white man smiles as his car fits the description. He doesn’t care because he’s working hard to get through school with as little debt as possible. Wheels don’t define a man. He should be judged not by the condition of his vehicle but by the content of his character—to sort of quote Martin Luther King Jr.
He sips his coffee; a speed bump splashes some into his nose, two-thirds Folgers, one-third, whipped cream-flavored vodka. He fumbles for a napkin, wipes his face, dabs his shirt, blows his nose, swerves a little. Re-focusing on the road and his mirrors, he notices an expensive car behind him, waxed, shiny, clean—close enough to dent his license plate. The driver’s face is invisible behind tinted windows so that the car alone appears angry at him.
His pulse quickens. Intuition tells him he’s in danger. He’s almost to the back entrance—or exit—of the government-funded neighborhood. This area was part of a revitalization project but has aged faster than a young female on meth. Too early, gutters are sagging, concrete is cracking, shutters are missing like teeth. Trash is snagging and accumulating on a green, chain-link fence enclosing a playground. Spray paint decorates a bus stop. Two windows on the sanctuary side of an AME church have been shattered by a rock, bullet, or bottle. Sad evidence of hard living—or hard dying—or maybe simply not caring.
He hears the thump, thump, thump of an amplified base as it vibrates through the antenna of the intimidating car behind him, further rattling his nerves. He’s already late. He’s about to be later, he thinks.
He arrives at the back exit but doesn’t come to a complete stop. Wisely, he keeps rolling toward the first traffic light. The expensive car stays uncomfortably close, gunning the engine then breaking, nipping his bumper like a dog. The radio host is listening with professional frustration to a caller pontificating about how hard it is to be a black living in America.
“Yo, man, I’m proud of Colin Kaepernick! He’s pointing out what ya’ll won’t see.”
“Yeah, well, his white mama isn’t proud of him. Do you know two white parents raised him after his birth parents would not? Did his black life matter back then? In this great country where poor Colin is making millions . . . man, dude, sheez, that’s a rough life! It’s hard being black with two white parents and a promising career in a free country that won’t shoot you dead for protesting.”
“Yo, li-li—listen, man. Blacks get shot by white cops all the time.”
The radio host sighs. “AND—white cops get shot by blacks all the time. Blacks shoot blacks. What’s your point?”
“We’re oppressed, man.”
“That’s what you believe? Listen, we’re at a commercial break but stay on the line. I’ve got a few questions for you that, hopefully, will restore a pinch of pride in a country that has spoiled Colin Kaepernick rotten, not oppressed him. We’ll be back…”
The white man in a low-income car speeds in vain toward the distant green light which turns red three car lengths in front of him. Out of lawful habit, he stops when he should’ve kept rolling. The expensive car breaks to a squeal behind him. A very large black man steps out.
With powerful strides, the tailgating stranger arrives with a frightening suddenness at the driver’s side window, hard muscles, gold rings, ranting, spitting, saying things that shouldn’t be said in public, in private, or anywhere else, ever. The mirrors have already warned the white man on his way to volunteer at the soup kitchen to manually lock all doors but there wasn’t enough time to roll up the windows he keeps open for ventilation because the air conditioner doesn’t work. He succeeds in raising only the driver’s side window high enough to remain somewhat shielded and discourage a bare-faced, dangerously-naked confrontation.
The light remains red far too long to allow for three passing cars whose drivers are oblivious to the developing altercation. Come on, come on, come on! The scene is surreal as a horror movie, so close to safety but so far away—a nightmare where the dreamer runs but his feet won’t move. For a few eternal seconds, he’s invisible to everyone but God and the man threatening to maim him, starting with his private parts.
Bloodshot, bug-eyed, wild with rage, the black man screams at the white man, “You cut me off! You cut me off! You cut me off!” Over and over he says the same thing.
Road rage. That’s what this is? The driver remembers the sharp right turn and the speed bump splashing coffee up his nose. The man dancing at the window has put something up his own nose, something illegal, something crazy potent.
“You cut me off! I conducts my biznus hee-uh and you gonna be cutt’n me off with dat sissy cracker piece of—” More obscenities.
Common men surprise themselves in uncommon situations. Fight or flight, they say or do things they never thought possible, sometimes impressive, sometimes disappointing, sometimes necessarily barbaric, proving one thing or another. Either way, a life-threatening moment is an out-of-body experience.
He heard himself saying, “Yeah, I know your kind of business.” Shaking, stuttering, “I-I-I see them begging outside the soup kitchen, smelling like vomit, shit, and urine.”
“You cut me off! Now I gonna cut you off, mother—” Spewing foul invectives, he reaches through the window. “I gonna break yo scrawny faggot neck!” Impossibly long and strong fingers tighten around the throat of the driver. The white man with a purple face flaps and feels for a handle. With all his remaining might he tightens the window.
The big man with trapped hands rams his shoulder against the car, rocking it like a toy. The window threatens to shatter; the monster bleeds trying in vain to free himself. His blood is the same color as the white man’s who’d bit his tongue almost choking to death.
A march of another kind forms across the street and has nothing to do with voting rights. He climbs out the passenger side. Balling his right hand into a bony fist, he runs toward the angry man and punches him once, square in the jaw. There was a crack—but it wasn’t the window. The dangerous man’s forehead collapses onto the car.
Rushing back to the passenger side, he reenters and locks the door. On the other side of the traffic light, the white man on his way to the soup kitchen loosens the window. The attacker falls away.
A hooptie sputtering on fumes pulls into the parking lot. The driver vomits, enters the building, rinses his mouth in the bathroom, washes his face and trembling hands at the sink, combs his hair.
* * *
“Good morning everybody.” Good morning comes the reply from a group of white Southern Baptist volunteers. He doesn’t know them but they’re all on the same side. They serve people who resent them. He opens can after can of tuna—for the final time.
Later that evening, his wife notices his swollen hand, staring with questioning eyes. He shrugs it off with half a lie. “Injured it this morning. Had some trouble with my car window.”
“Oh,” she says, satisfied.
Together they watch the depressing news. Bloody Sunday. Turnaround Tuesday. Discriminated blacks. Discriminated Muslims. Hoodies, berkas, and white sheets—lots of white sheets—over the faces and heads of unknown bodies, both the living and the indiscriminate dead.