Tuesday, March 11, 2008
I Am Ridiculous: a vignette
Ten Years Ago in the Life and Times of Michael5000
OK, this is a story that might have the power to offend. I offer it here, though, as yet another exhibit for the prosecution on the absurdity of life, or perhaps just the absurdity of me.
Two things you should know: First, I spent the first 25 years of my life in small towns and small cities in Oregon and Kansas, and though I was raised to understand that racism is among the most vile of human sins, I also had had very little actual exposure to African-Americans. Second, I am a shy person and, when I'm going to have to initiate a conversation with a stranger, I tend to rehearse what I'm going to say in my head a few times. A part of me must think that this will prevent me from saying anything foolish, or stumbling over my words. In practice, it probably makes me come off as strange and artificial, but it's just how I seem to operate.
So. It's 1998, and I'm refinishing the floors of my house in small-town Kansas, and I need to seal the joint between the fireplace and the floor surface. In doing this, I'll need to match the grout in the fireplace tile, which is very dark. I head down the street to the general hardware store, but they don't have what I need; they point me a mile down the highway to a more specialized paint store, and off I go.
I find the shop, which is empty except for an unseen clerk who shouts a greeting from a few aisles away. I say hello, but I have already seen the sealant section, so I go over and start looking through the selection. It's a problem. They've got lots of white and off-white varieties, of course, and some light browns, and even a curious red, but nothing that matches my grout. You homeowning readers will understand my quandry.
I decide to ask the clerk that I heard earlier if there's anything in back, or anything I'm missing. Being me, about to talk to a stranger, I compose what I'm going to say to him in my head.
I turn the corner, and there he is, a pleasant, professional-looking African American man about my age. "What can I help you with?" he asks. I stammer something about being fine, pretend to browse for a moment, then leave the shop, totally defeated. He must have thought I was some kind of idiot, and really, that would have been right. But I'm a shy person, and in that moment of talking to a stranger, there was no way I was going to say the phrase that I had rehearsed in my head, that was right there on the tip of my tongue, ready to go:
"Hi. I'm looking for some black caulk. Can you help me with that?"