There Goes the Neighborhood
My wife Cindy and I move to Portland in the fall of 1995. We find a cute little place on Southeast Main Street in the Mt. Tabor community. One late-October day a neighbor greets us – an important neighbor, known by many other neighbors as The Mayor of Main Street. Her name is Kathy and she brings us a welcome gift, a loaf of something she calls, in her cigarette-charred voice, “Friendship Bread.” We thank her and then she points across the street to her house. In the driveway, we see her husband washing a big orange sports utility vehicle, a Chevy Blazer. He’s polishing it — lovingly, intimately rubbing the intimidating SUV like it’s a genie bottle, as if at any moment Barbara Eden will materialize in a puff of smoke ready to grant wishes. He clearly loves his truck.
Kathy turns to us and in her raspy way says, “You know, we’re having a party Thursday night, a Blazer Party and I hope you can come join us.” It’s a warm and sincere gesture but all I can think is: A Blazer Party? Are they convening friends to celebrate that big-ass orange SUV monstrosity? Is that why Kathy’s hubby is waxing and polishing that god-awful road hog? Will we all gather before its shiny, elevated mag-wheels and sing praises to its gas-guzzling automotive masculinity? This is what I think about – in a very long moment.
Cindy looks at me and her eyes say this: “We will go, Steve, like it or not. We must; we’re new in town.” But she says, “That sounds like fun, Kathy. We’ll be there. What can we bring?”
I nod, look at the SUV and say, “Yeah … great … fun.”
So on the day of the party I buy a nice bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, with hints of grapefruit and lemongrass, and I make a batch of cilantro-hazelnut pesto as a gift for the Mayor of Main Street and her SUV-caressing husband. I don’t know what to bring as a gift for the all-mighty Blazer – frankincense and myrrh?
That evening, when we arrive at the party, we see that everyone is sitting around watching basketball on TV. Of course, it’s the start of the NBA season and this is a Blazer Party, a Portland Trail Blazer party! I should have known because I like basketball. We hand the Mayor of Main Street the wine and then the pesto, and she gives it a weird look. I quickly tell her what the pesto’s made of but stop short of recommending how to use it because – judging from the spread she’s laid out on the dining room table – she’ll never, ever, ever eat it. Call me a snob but I think I’ve been transported to America’s Midwest in the early 1960s because the appetizers include saltines topped with American cheese, some sort of brown-pinkish ham spread, chips and onion-cream-cheese dip and – I’m not making this up – pigs-in-a-blanket: Fucking weenies wrapped in fucking white dough. No, Kathy will never eat that cilantro-hazelnut pesto, and, you know, that’s OK.
Like the food, the conversation, what little there is, doesn’t really appeal to Cindy and me. Call us both snobs. But we stay the requisite 45 minutes (anything less is rude, anything more is unbearble). Through pre-designated hand signals, Cindy and I agree it’s time to go and she gets our coats. I hear Kathy’s husband talking to another guest. And just as Cindy hands me my coat, the guest asks Mr. Main Street this question: “So you’re a supervisor for the City of Portland, huh? Do you have any mi-nor-i-ties working for you? If you do, I pity you because they don’t learn too good.” (To his credit, Kathy’s husband deflects the question by saying something about his supervision of a diverse workforce.)
I stop putting on my coat and freeze. What do I do? Because I’m a writing instructor, my first instinct is to correct the moron’s English: They don’t learn too well. Not “good.” Well. More importantly, I then want to take this Blazer Party guest to task for his racist remark, as I’ve done several times in similar situations. Speaking up to people like him is one way my world view manifests. I want to launch into this bigot: No, sir, you are the one who doesn’t learn too well. You have failed to learn to judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, as one famous mi-nor-i-ty once said.
I really want to say that and more. Much more. What do I do?
Now, Cindy and I exchange glances and we’re both thinking: Is it worth it? If Bigot Boy had made this comment in the middle of the party, I likely would’ve strategically called him out for his slur. But it’s really hard to tackle someone’s ignorance and intolerance – not to mention grammar – as you’re saying your goodbyes. It’s time to go. Just as your world view tells you when to act, it also tells you when not to act. We thank the Mayor and the First Gentleman and escape out the front door.
by Steven T. Taylor
Analogy Editorial Board Member,