Monday, January 01, 2007

Racial Tension in Maryland - A First Hand Experience

I cleared the D.C. area and crossed the Bay on my way to Wilmington and took the first ramp off the freeway that I could find. It took me into fields of autumn crops, narrow lane ways, red painted barns and very little traffic. I was thankful for that today since it takes a day or two to get used to driving on the other side of the road.

I had departed Washington with the vague notion that I should get a haircut at some point. It was a beautiful, clear day and I deliberately drove through as many back woods roads as I could. I wanted to get a feel for the US, not through the rarefied air of political Washington (though heck, that was something else as well). So I plan to fill my journal with as many anecdotes of the people I meet across as much of America as I can find. I have three weeks. Today I got off to a good start.

With the need for a haircut in mind I slowed into a small crossroads town of only three of four buildings. So small it was not marked on my Rand McNally. All very shabby and lacking paint. A hardware store. And a grocery store. And wonder of wonders, a barbers pole. I backed up and parked the car. It was very quiet. No one on the streets (all two of them) so I walked into the hardware store, which was also a second hand store. Can’t afford that new axe? Well, buy Grandpa’s old one. The old chap behind the counter greeted me with a friendly hello but I stepped back onto the porch before I got started into a conversation I would not be able to finish.

I then walked across the road to the barber shop, stepped across the small porch and pushed into the shop. On my left were three chairs with three African Americans under the towels, each being clipped by three African Americans. On the floor were two small children, about four or five years old. The girl had her hair down in those tight, numerous pigtails that these folk seem to enjoy. The chatter and laughter I could hear on the street was instantly silenced when I walked in. And everyone kept that silence as I stood and tried to read the “menu” of styles they offered. As I turned to sit down I realised that they were all looking at me and that the silence had continued. And as I sat down I realised this was not something they expected, or perhaps previous tolerated. Not that I felt threatened. But it was clearly not something they expected. I figured I would stay sitting down and picked up a magazine to flick through it. The kids sitting on the floor sat and gazed at me with their mouths open, and the clipping started up again over my right shoulder. But the silence continued.

After a few minutes I was signalled over to one of the chairs. One of the existing customers had paused half way through his haircut and signalled for me to take his place. As I did so one of the barbers asked what sort of style I wanted and pointed at the menu. I had no idea what they meant and stood to get a zig zag pattern zapped into my head if I took a random guess so asked him to keep it simple and tidy up the mop that was there. After he strapped me he asked (and stated) “You’re not from around here are you?” The accent had given me away. So I carefully explained where I was from and what I was doing driving through their blip on the map. Instantly the chemistry changed. The kids rapid-fired questions about snakes at me. And all sorts of bizarre questions came thick and fast from the other barbers and customers. It was pretty obvious that in the minds of some, Australia was Africa. Or vice verca. But it made for an interesting and lively discussion.

Half way through the haircut the bell above the door tinkled and a VERY LARGE woman walked in carrying a stack of pizza boxes. She waddled in with cries of hello, turned and locked the door and flipped the “open” sign to “closed”. This was lunch being delivered and this was the mother of the three barbers, and grandmother to the two children – who had greeted her with squeals of delight. My towel was whipped off from around my neck even though we were only half way through the haircut. And I was invited to sit on the floor of the shop foyer with them all (including the other customers) and share pizza with them. The air, crowded with barriers only a few minutes earlier, was now an atmosphere of family into which I was warmly welcomed.

I had the haircut finished under the stern gaze and hilarious guidance of mother before she took the grandchildren off somewhere. I wish I asked which town I was in – I know one day I will be looking for that place again. I am now settling down for the evening at McGuire AFB, and even this purely functionary establishment has taken on a glow that is hung over from the thoroughly pleasant experience with which the day started. If I was looking to get a feel for what the US is about then today’s haircut bodes well.

October 1989



Enjoyed your entry. Hehe, yep. I guess once we understand each other then it's easier to love each other.

Actually, it reminds me of a time I was walking around with a friend in the Sultanate of Oman and it was the date season (so dates were growing and falling everywhere) and we passed these old bedouin men who were sitting on a mat under this date tree with a bowl full of dates. They saw us, greeted us and then offered us their dates, which were really sweet and tasty. The whole time we were using hand gestures (because we spoke English and they spoke Arabic). Whoa, long comment.

marymaddux6272 said...

Fabulous experience. Thanks for sharing.

Pickled Eel said...

The US has given lots of amazing experiences like this. In so many ways we are alike, yet in so many other ways we are very different.

Anonymous said...

Hi..was grading papers and surfing INet for information on racial tension in Columbia, Maryland and your post came up. Great story. In 60's I briefly worked for Experiment in International Living and they had a slogan that summed up the gratification that comes from sharing a meal with those of other culures - can't remember the quote, but your post hit a good nerve with me. Regards

Pickledeel said...

Thanks Anonymous - I agree - sharing a meal is a great way of bring down barriers. More recently I have had some remarkable interaction with Arabs, sitting in their tents and sharing goats head and rice. Overwhelming hospitality.