Privilege

This is a new short fiction piece I wrote. Some of the places are real but the characters and story are all make believe. More or less….

We saw the first protesters about a half mile after we pulled off the freeway. Traffic was heavy and slow, and I was tempted to turn the car around and head back home. It wasn’t my idea to come here, and I still wasn’t sure why I agreed to it. A couple of young women, college age from the looks of them, were carrying signs. One of the signs said, “Check Your Privilege.” The other said, “I Can Never Walk In Your Shoes But I Can Walk Beside You.”

Another sign, further up, was carried by a man with long gray dreadlocks and a Rasta hat. His sign said “Black Lives Matter.” He was standing in front of a small laundromat that had been in that exact spot for 50 years or so, back when I was a kid and this neighborhood was home.

They called it Lintville in those days because the textile mills were still up and running. My father worked in the mills, just like his father before him. So did a whole squadron of uncles, cousins, aunts and siblings. To the rest of the city we were known as lintheads, and if you’ve ever been inside a textile mill, you know why. A machine blows cotton out of the warehouse and into the factory and the cotton gets everywhere, into your face and lungs and hair. It doesn’t go away until you wash it out, which might be when you get home or when you wake up the next day or night. Every block for a square mile was packed together with little shotgun houses, where the mill workers lived.

Our house was about the same as all the others – three rooms, a rickety front porch, a narrow kitchen – except we had a chicken coop out back and could make a little extra money selling eggs. We’d sell them to the neighbors or take a few crates downtown and sell them there, at least until the police told us to either get a merchant’s license or move along. “I bet it’s them office boys in the suits and ties telling the police to clear us out,” Daddy would say. “Don’t want no linthead white trash mussing up the scenery.”

I get lost driving through Lintville nowadays, so I don’t ever come back this way. The only reason I drove out here today was because Amy talked me into it, said it would be good for the both of us. Cars are backed up a mile or so, snarling traffic. We saw the first police car as soon as we hit the exit ramp and probably seen a dozen more since then. I poke along and poke along, scanning the old neighborhood, trying to find something else that looks familiar besides the laundromat. But nothing does.

“There’s a new restaurant,” Amy said, pointing across the way. “At least it’s got a new name, anyway.”

“The Fuselage,” I said. “Funny name for a restaurant.”

“Catches the eye, though,” Amy said.

I snuck a glance at her in the passenger seat. She looks older than her years, Amy does. I worry about her the way any parent worries about a daughter or son. I worry about all that could go wrong in this world, and all that has gone wrong, and all that will go wrong in the future, because it’s a sure bet something will. Amy’s only 37 and she’s already paid her misery bill in full, but the misery won’t ever go away. What happened to Cobey was three years ago, but it’s still a fresh wound for Amy. She could live another thousand years and the wound will still be fresh, draining the blood from her heart, drip by drip by drip.

I took a closer look at the restaurant and said, “There used to be a store there, I think. A little grocery where you’d buy dry goods and canned goods. Never carried meat or fresh produce. Just non-perishables. You had to go somewhere else for meat and vegetables. Or maybe I got the wrong block. Hard to tell because nothing looks the way it used to.”

The way it used to look was three big mills surrounded by a few hundred little houses. One movie theatre. One café. One dry goods store. Two churches. Five pool halls that sold beer and illegal whiskey and ran the occasional poker game the police would ignore as long as you slid a few dollars into their pockets.

I went straight to a mill job after high school, second shift, boiler room.  Two years later the mill shut down for good and the textile jobs went away and the city of Charlotte decided it wasn’t a working-class town anymore but a banking town. I figured I’d join the Army but my mother talked me out of it, said she’d already lost a son and two nephews to Vietnam and that was enough for one family. Didn’t matter that the war was over by then, my mother was pretty sure another one would crank up again real soon.

What came next was a series of jobs, none much better or worse than the other. Furniture delivery, handyman, roofer, painter, pool builder, warehouse worker, short-haul driver. I got married and we started a family and we talked about buying a home somewhere, but we never squirreled away enough money for a down payment, so we moved into an apartment on the east side of town.

When the black families started moving in I cleaned my revolver and kept it locked in a cabinet near the front door. You get raised a certain way, around certain people, with certain rules and ideas, under a certain God, and it’s not easy to get used to something else, even though the world turns quicker than you can keep up. I’d leave for work in the morning and maybe there’d be a few of them hanging around outside, leaning against a car, music turned up about mid-range, so I’d stare their way and they’d stare back. Then I’d see them when I came home in the evening and they’re hanging around, maybe leaning against a different car. Stares, stares, back and forth. One would nod a hello every now and then, and I’d nod back. But we never said a word.

“You ever hear from your old friends from when you were a kid here?” Amy asked.

Her question yanked me back into the here and now. This car. This street. Back to Lintville, decades later, making our way down the road.

“Not in a while,” I said. “Used to see ‘em every now and then, at funerals and the like. But then I stopped going.”

We hit some more traffic and came to a stop. I looked around and it was all unfamiliar territory, different terrain. They don’t call this area Lintville anymore and haven’t in 40 years or so. It’s called NoDa now, short for North Davidson. North Davidson Street is the name of the main drag through these parts. A few years after the mills shut down and the neighborhood went to seed a couple of enterprising artists bought up property real cheap and turned it into an arts district and started calling it NoDa. It’s gone through a couple more changes since then. Many of the mill houses got torn down or upfitted. The streets are full of restaurants and bars and apartments that rent for more in a month than my father used to make in a year. Young people live here, professional types, college grads.

“Mom never liked you mixing with your old crowd, did she?” Amy said.

“Oh, it wasn’t like that,” I said. “She came from a little more money than I did, but not much more. She just always wanted us to move forward instead of looking behind. Get a house with the green yard and extra bathroom. But we never quite got there. We’d get close, then something would happen. But your mother never stopped thinking we’d get there, all the way up to the end.”

“We made out alright,” Amy said.

I laughed. “Hell, we never made it out of the Eastside apartment.”

“But it was still home, still an okay place to live. Even if you didn’t like it.”

“I never said I didn’t like it.”

“That all seems like a thousand years ago,” Amy said.

She turned away and stared outside, out at the picket signs, out at the police.

One of my neighbors at the Eastside apartment – his name was Malcolm – started putting an Africa flag up after the Rodney King riots. The flag had a black fist superimposed over a map of Africa done up in red, yellow and green. He kept it in his window all year long, except on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, when he’d hang it on a pole by his front door where American flags would usually go.

Malcolm seemed like an okay fella when you talked to him. Served in the Army, worked for the post office, where they hang the American flag every day. I finally asked Malcolm why he always put up that Africa flag on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, seeing as how he served under the American flag with the Army. He turned the question around on me, asked me why I put up an American flag on patriotic holidays.

“Because this is my country,” I said. “It’s where I’m from.”

“There’s your answer,” Malcolm said. And that was it.

We never spoke too much after that, Malcolm and me. He eventually moved away, and a Mexican family moved in to his old place. Soon more Mexicans and Guatemalans started moving in, and the blacks and whites started moving out. But every time I thought about moving, something would happen with my job, or my wife’s illness, and we just never got around to it.

Then Amy got pregnant while she was still in high school, and there was another mouth to feed, and that drilled us down into that apartment even deeper.

It’s funny the things you don’t notice when you’re a father. I never noticed Amy putting on weight. I never noticed how she’d have to go lie down, or go throw up. I’d come home from a hard day at work and drink a couple beers before dinner. I’d sit by the window and look outside at the neighbors, some black, some brown, only a few white anymore, and they’d be hanging out in the parking lot, blasting music, laughing, cutting up. I kept the revolver handy just in case some of the crime you’d hear about decided to creep through our front door. I thought about my childhood in Lintville, how people would do much the same thing, sit on their porches or lean against their cars, drinking beer and listening to music, only it seemed different back then, better managed, less threatening.

Amy was already six months pregnant before she and my wife broke the news to me. I already knew who the father was. They didn’t even have to tell me. I could tell by the looks on their faces. I shook my head and tossed a pillow across the room and took a deep breath and lit out for the bars, spending money I couldn’t afford to spend.

They named the boy Cobey, after Kobe Bryant. He was the father’s favorite basketball player. Only Amy didn’t want to spell it K-O-B-E, thinking that was too weird, so she spelled it C-O-B-E-Y. They never got married, Amy and the father. He lived in the neighborhood, a couple buildings over, and he would come by from time to time to act the part of a dad. I always made myself scarce when he did. I didn’t want to see him or pretend he was family. His family was more accepting of it, but they moved away just as Cobey reached toddler age. The father’s visits got fewer and fewer and eventually stopped altogether. I told Amy not to worry about it. He’s still a young kid himself, and he’s got no more business being a father than you have being a mother.

It’s amazing how a child can cast a spell on you. He’ll look you in the eyes and smile and laugh and poke you, giggle and climb on top of you whether you want him to or not. Pretty soon you forget how you felt when you first saw his brown skin and curly hair in the maternity ward, how you held him for about three seconds before pushing him back to his mother. Pretty soon you’re pinching his cheek and letting him grab your finger. Pretty soon you’re rolling a ball back and forth. Pretty soon you’re strolling him around the neighborhood, putting him up on your shoulders and bouncing him around, taking him to the ball game and the race. Pretty soon you’re helping him with his math, until the day he passes you by and you pretend to understand what his math means even as he chuckles and makes fun of you. Then you chuckle back and the next thing you know you’re wrestling around on the carpet, laughing so hard your back aches.

Pretty soon you’re taking him to the doctor because he was born with a severe asthma condition that required regular treatments.

It wasn’t until later, after it happened,  that Amy told me about the talk she’d had with Cobey when he was 12 years old. A friend of hers at work, a black woman, suggested she give the talk to Cobey. Just sit him down and tell him straight out what he can and can’t do.

Don’t wear hoods after the sun goes down.

Don’t go to white neighborhoods without a white friend.

Don’t run through white neighborhoods. Just walk.

Keep your hands in plain view when you’re stopped by the police.

Don’t argue with the police, even if they’re wrong.

Don’t run from the police, even if you feel threatened.

Thousands of people saw it happen before we even got word that Cobey was in the hospital. His friends recorded it with their cell phones and put it all over Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, just about as soon as it was happening. Cobey had gotten off his shift at the food court and him and a couple of his friends were hanging around the mall parking lot, leaning against a car, windows rolled down, music playing. A police cruiser pulled up and an officer got out and approached them. He asked them what they were doing.

Just hanging out, they said.

The police officer said: There’s been a couple car break-ins in this parking lot tonight. Ya’ll know anything about that?

Nah, we don’t know nothing about it.

You see anything?

Nah..

What ya’ll doing out here, anyway? Mall’s closed.

Just hanging out after work.

Just hanging out, huh?

Yeah.

Why here? Why the parking lot?

Got no place else to go at our age. (Laughter)

I’ll ask again: Why are you here right now?

I told you. We’re just hanging out. Is that a crime?

Are you trying to be a smartass, son?

Nah. But why are you….

What’s your name?

Excuse me?

Your name. Tell me your name.

Cobey.

OK Cobey, where do you work?

Food court.

Here at the mall?

Yessir, right here.

You got any ID on you?

Yeah, but why? What did I do?

I’m asking the questions.

I understand, but I mean, why are you asking me for an ID? I’m not doing anything. We’re just hanging out.

You fit an eyewitness description of someone who’s been looking into cars in this parking lot. I’m just following up here, so please cooperate and answer my questions.

But we literally just walked out here a few minutes ago. You can go inside and ask my manager. I just got off work.

Please step away from the car and put your hands above your head.

Are you serious?

Step. Away. From. The. Car. And. Put. Your. Hands. Above. Your. Head.

Look, I want to know why you’re….

I’m going to give you exactly five seconds to do as I tell you.

Cobey stepped forward, only too fast. He tripped over his feet and stumbled into the police officer. Cobey was always a little clumsy. Not a good athlete at all, hard as I tried to teach him.  

Then the grab around the neck.

Then the pushback from Cobey.

Then the struggle, and the police officer – a big guy, much bigger than Cobey, who was 17 and weighed 140 pounds soaking wet – the police officer, who’s 33 years old and weighs 203 pounds, he picks Cobey up and slams him down to the pavement and plants himself on top. The police officer pulls out a walkie talkie and requests backup, gives his location. He yells at Cobey’s friends to back up, just back the fuck up.

Then other voices, in the background.

Get off him! What you doing, bro? You’re gonna hurt him! Get off him! Why you need to do this?

People with severe asthma are susceptible to frequent asthma attacks and often have difficulty breathing when exercising or otherwise exerting themselves. When you have an attack you’re supposed to use your inhaler. If you don’t have an inhaler handy you’re supposed to stop whatever you’re doing and sit upright. Take long, deep breaths. Remain calm. Seek emergency medical help.

A severe asthma attack can prevent you from getting enough oxygen into your lungs. In the worst cases, you stop breathing.

In the worst cases, you die.

How many times did I wonder what I would do with my revolver if me and that cop ever got in the same room alone together? How many times did I curse myself for feeling that way? How many times did I turn it around again, and wonder why I could feel anything but anger at him?

The protesters got thicker and louder as we crept forward in the car. The actual protest was still a dozen blocks up. Another black man has died at the hands of another white police officer, this time in Minnesota. This time the whole country and world are tuned in. This time there’s a rainbow coalition of resistance. I doubted we’d be able to drive much further, so I pulled onto a side street and parked there.

“You sure you want to walk that far?” Amy said.

“I ain’t that old,” I told her.

Amy reached into the back seat and pulled out a sign. It had a photo of Cobey on it. It was a picture of him in his food court uniform, on his first day of work. He has a goofy smile on his face, as if to say, “Come on, Mom, just take the picture.” But you can see the pride behind it. His first day on the job, earning his first paycheck. Above his photo are three letters in bold black letters: BLM. Below the photo are Cobey’s name, the day he was born, the day he died, and three more bold black letters: RIP.

A woman with purple hair and tattoos all over her body approached me. She handed me a brochure titled, “What You Need to Know About White Privilege.”

She smiled, said, “Peace, brother,” and walked on.

I looked around the old neighborhood. It sure has changed over the years. Nicer, cleaner, prettier. I didn’t feel very privileged growing up here. Just a linthead from Lintville.

The world turns quicker than you can keep up, but you can still learn a few things along the way.

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