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?"

11 comments:

Chance said...

That is tragelarious!

fingerstothebone said...

I can completely sympathize with that. I don't think I was born a shy person, but I became very shy after moving here, by myself, at 15, which I think everyone would pretty much understand. I'd also rehearse things in my head; and I'd cross the road to avoid talking to someone that I thought I recognized; when someone was 'kind' enough to ask me out for a date, I'd let him walk all over me. Then one morning I woke up and thought, well, this is no way to live a life. And I changed.

Rebel said...

Oh that's not that bad at all.

In a presentation in college I meant to say something like "Most people think that domestic violence only happens in families that are poor or among minorities; but the fact is that domestic violence occurs across racial or income lines" What I *actually* said was more like "We all hope that domestic violence only happens to poor minorities, but really it could happen to anyone."

D'oh!

I very hastily and very clumsily attempted to correct myself.

Bridget B. said...

Ouch. Yes, "tragelarious"

mrs.5000 said...

I've heard this anecdote before, but found it even funnier and more excruciating in print.

"Caulk" is one of the few words where I've consciously tried to preserve my New Jersey accent, which makes that fussy east-coast distinction between what are dead-on homophones in the rest of the country. ("Maureen" and "marine," and "Dawn" and "Don" were two pairs I caught quite a lot of shit for when I moved there from the Midwest in the eighth grade.)

"Sealant," of course, is even better when speaking to men in the trades.

The [Cherry] Ride said...

OK, that is funny. Pathetic, but funny.

At least you didn't offend anyone. I have a slip of the tongue incident (similar to Rebel's above) in which by pure accident, a group of work colleagues now believe me to be a total racist.

(Which I am not, for the record.)

gl. said...

oh, this is -totally- something i would do! thank god i didn't.

mrs.5000: yes, i suspect it is funnier & more excruciating in print. :) so much the better for us!

karmasartre said...

Dude -- that was you? Small world. Just as well, we were out of the black, anyway.

Dan said...

ooh, that's tough. Reminds me of the time I was talking to some (white) guy in a bar and he asked me if it was wrong to be attracted to a girl with a black guy. After several minutes of convoluted conversation in which I tried to rationalize his feelings by coming up with a crackpot theory in which he was experiencing some sort of cultural stereotype big penis envy, to his total confusion, I turned around to see a girl with a black eye.

ah race. such fun.

Michael said...

@dan: Wow, that is a great parallel story. I'm glad this kind of thing doesn't just happen to me.

Tereza said...

I see you too have had some fun with caulk.