On Our Side of the Line

Perception must depend on location and familiarity as well as with who surrounds oneself. This realization has become even more pronounced since moving cross-country.

Before coming to Nevada, I’d already accumulated years in the Southwest. Though after whatever needed conducting here was finished, I scrammed back to New York. Now as a Silver State resident, the region’s peculiarities are more present and therefore more insistent.

Especially among non-landed citizens. It’s as if they’re intentionally indifferent towards recognizing individuals, preferring indistinction and keeping certain groups amorphous.

It’s made me appreciate Caribe Latinos and as well as Asians who migrated into the Northeast. I grew up among such segments. While they retained and maintained vestiges of their heritages, they also opened their eyes. Literally they looked around and saw Americans. They could distinguish us.

Emigres from Mexico, Central America, and the Pacific, decades long as some have resided here in the Western United States, for the most part haven’t bothered. Or have simply resisted.

While their native-born successors can differentiate, the naturalized, either recently or long-time, their elders, are seemingly and blithely stymied by darker complexions. To them blacks fit the cliché.

“We all look alike.”

Oh? No, we don’t. Which is funny insofar as too many of those who fail discerning this black from that negro often walk around with darker skin than the people they misperceive. Or just won’t see.

In these cases, ignorance would be a preferred dodge. Unacceptable nonetheless, but almost preferable. Instead, it comes across as being observantly lazy on purpose. The kind of intentional blindness that targets and strikes insult.

At work, I have a colleague who for the longest mistook me for a co-worker. A Pacific Islander, she kept calling me by another man’s name. This despite correcting her like a metronome. All the other fellow and I have in common is we’re black. That encompasses a wide spectrum. Besides being darker than me, he also wears his hair in dreads. Moreover, he’s originally from Chicago. So right there the differences should become absolutely apparent.

Tiring PDQ of her unwillingness to differentiate us, I simply gave her the cold shoulder. Though we never grinned and skinned between ourselves before, my aloofness quickly recalibrated her sight. Suddenly I stopped being “Steve.” Which was fine as far as work. However, she’s yet to provide a necessary apology.

I gather she believes the gesture would be a waste on her part. Or I’m undeserving of that extension of grace.

Instead of roaring off on a whole disquisition about what it means for American blacks to receive our due recognition as individuals, let me instead use my father as an illustration.

Like every elder who imprinted me deepest, father grew up in the rural Jim Crow South during the Depression. As a boy into his manhood, Dawgpatch whites barely acknowledged him as a human. Except for the few whose manners blurred the color line without prodding, those who addressed father by his name likely considered themselves having been magnanimous. Otherwise like almost every other black face whites encountered, whatever flopped into their minds then out of their mouths sufficed.

Redress was out of the question until the civil rights movement started squaring accounts.

I know the above from history. The sort of history too many of our fellow Americans intend never be taught. Their reluctance stems from defensiveness; that such education may tarnish members in the family line; that this knowledge will strengthen the basis behind black Americans’ genuine grievances.

Father, mother, their siblings, friends, our neighbors wouldn’t have mentioned such casual attempts at humiliation themselves in front of successors and inheritors. Theirs was a stoic generation. They endured then overcame far more than spotty wi-fi.

However, by example father did teach me a lesson about our name. Its importance.

Back when the middle class was ascendent and expanding, when durable goods were reliable and lasted decades, and before planned obsolescence turned cars into premature heaps, father bought a new car every three years. Many of our fathers followed this formula. Why? Because then American industry paid workers fair wages and didn’t stint on benefits. Unlike today when boards favor shareholders over laboring people who truly manufactured the profits. Imagine that. Rewarding the makers instead of screwing them to further duke the takers.

Mid-century industrial America. An unrecognizable country, indeed.

A G.M. man stolidly aligned with UAW 664, father always bought Mercs. He just preferred them over Chevies. In buying a competitor’s model he forfeited a lot of discounts. But he remained true to his tastes and that can’t be bought. Besides, he’d worked at that plant when labor strife occasionally demanded a few cars needed rolling in the parking lot. Who knows? Back when he was younger, retaining the fervor and clarity World War II service imbued in him, perhaps he volunteered some brute strength to help his rank-and-file brethren flip some steel and chrome to bolster demands against management.

If so, unless his a Japanese auto, nobody might’ve messed with the model he drove.

When I finally got old enough to become less of a nuisance, he’d take me along to a Mercury dealer showroom. Now, I suspect father always entered the premises already knowing what he wanted to purchase. Yet guys and cars, being a guy myself, though not a gearhead, I get it. A man just wants to be among all that gleaming horsepower and available options so he can daydream about making sporty wheels zoom at a smooth 80 before settling for a monstrous four-door, V-8, factory air sedan in dark green. Or navy blue. A dad car.

Once father’s vicarious living ended, and the salesman guided us to his desk, and before any horse trading began, a salesman or two would invariably mispronounce our surname. Whether intentionally or carelessly, who knew?

Only many years later did I grasp what occurred next. Father would evenly correct the dealer. Not with any heat. Just in a way that snapped the vocal malefactor onto the right verbal path. If remembered correctly, father’s rebukes either took salesmen aback or gained their tacit acknowledgement. Either way our name got pronounced acceptably from thereon.

Most importantly the Mercury got sold. And mother got to ride in a new car.

Much older now, better versed in the ways of our world, I ask how hard could it have been – can it be – to say our name properly? It’s only two syllables! A simple pair at that! Not like Tkachuk. Or one of those Eastern European tongue-breakers where consonants crash and mash into one another bereft of vowels.

Sometimes during our present days, I’ll hear my surname slurred through an additional syllable or a couple of tossed-in letters. Unlike father I’m sharp and short. Different generation, I have no compunction about being offensive in defense of my name. Unlike father I believe the speaker intentionally misspoke. The reasons may be myriad. Immaterial. He or she has got my ire. Not exactly what someone wants from me.

I take the fullest pleasure in listening to the error backtracked and righted. Aurally and visually.

Just casually surveying fellow black co-workers we’ve concluded a high concentration of those from below the line or from wherever in the Pacific Basin not only suffer visual angina, but also grudge us true Americans much of the civility fulsomely extended to Anglos. They often fail telling us apart. They frequently mangle our names. Believing we’re too mentally laggard to at least absorb some of their lingo, some of the ruder ones will insult us with imagined impunity.

It amuses me when norteamericanos do their utmost to perfect Spanish inflections when speaking to émigré Latinos. Fuck that. It’s one thing to retain an accent. It’s an entirely different matter to feel it unnecessary to learn the native language after making this side of the line their homes.

Why should this Yanqui be required to break his ears under a foreign tongue in the United States? Shouldn’t every new arrival follow in the linguistic footsteps of those who walked through the “Golden Door” of the American Immigrant Era?

Not that those long-ago new Americans completely shed their pasts, but they strove like fiends to learn English. Yes, they had media and entertainments specific to their original lands. (Hey. I’ve read plenty of I.B. Singer translations from The Forward, nee The Jewish Daily Forward.) However, those new Americans also immersed themselves into mainstream culture.

An incident in the first two weeks of 2022 singed me. It nearly made me approve of Anglos who resent hearing the phone option of pressing No. 2.

At best, my Spanish is clunky. Sufficient for the most basic of conversation and maybe rudimentary offers of help. Or as I call it, “restaurant Spanish.” Odd thing is when I’m in Spain without a fluent speaker accompanying me or in Argentina and Uruguay it improves so that I’m not completely inarticulate. Here in the States, most South Americans and Spaniards visiting Las Vegas arrive speaking passable English. So we meet halfway.

Mexicans, though? Forget it.

Anyway, I was performing some workaday duties and I needed bank services. I stopped by a branch whose financial overlords hold a brokerage account of mine. Coincidence that affiliate abetted a heavy Mexican clientele with an entirely Mexican-American staff. I’ve noticed in those instances black depositors undergo greater scrutiny than we would if the bankers predominately Anglo instead. Yeah. You can tell. Nothing like a nice healthy amount of moo-la-dee popping up on the screen to transform a suspicious bank flunky into a Latino version of Milburn Drysdale in no time.

Our business concluded, I rose to depart. Waiting for the banker, a Mexicana. The sort who wouldn’t be put out at all if casual observers mistook her for a Castilian. But when she flapped her yap, the cat jumped out of the bag. She lacked the lisp.

During our earlier Covid agonies, I mixed up Spaniards for Mexicans. Never again. At that time restrictions severely hindered Europeans’ air travel into the United States. Mexico’s runways permitted easier cross-Atlantic arrivals. From them easy flights north waited.

That’s how the Spaniards got into Las Vegas. They entered through Mexico.

I didn’t know this. Assuming as I did, them being Mexicans, I asked where they lived in Mexico. The Spaniards’ indignation wasn’t comical. It was profound. While discussing the depths of their acrimony among themselves – in Castilian – the sibilancies hissed burned my ears as if steam from a burst boiler reddened them.

How it would’ve suited the Mexicana at the bank if she’d instead been some Almodovar-esque concoction of warped Iberian femininity. But she was too put-together. Drat!

If she’d been the sort of dama who was almost disappointed when indios and negros didn’t press themselves against walls when they passed her on sidewalks it wouldn’t have been unexpected. Or better, anticipated such inferiors to lurch onto the streets while averting their eyes as she walked by them.

Seems este negro made that chacha cool her jets longer than she thought necessary. As we passed, she directed a blast at the banker about me. In Spanish. I looked back at the banker. Her comments had discomforted him.

Reader, if you’ve ever learned or tried learning a foreign language, you’ll agree the natural inclination is collecting then committing to memory the swear words first. Let’s just say that woman flung all the malice she must’ve toted that morning my way. Better than getting the gist, I got the particulars.

Possessed by Michael Caine-like detachment, I told her “En este lado de la linea hablamos ingles. Es posible que desee probarlo, chocha.”

Had it been later in the day, I could’ve been a lot more profane. And way louder.