Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hope, Fear and Race in America


On the sunny, crisp and final Monday of October 2008, three friends met at around 1 p.m., in Downtown Manhattan's financial district for lunch.

The three then headed to a pub located on a narrow cobblestone street deep within the cavernous patch of land where buildings inspired by finance touch the sky.

Inside, dim light, drab wood tables and a line of customers at a steam table that included Turkey and cranberry sauce, Cajun Strip Steak, vegetables and crusted macaroni and Cheese.

Sitting at the tables were business attired patrons on lunch breaks.

Being that it was a few days before Halloween, fake spider webs coated the ceiling.

And, since it was only eight days before a national election, much of the soft but steady conversation filling the room was punctuated by Obama, Palin and McCain and Biden.

After the three settled into one of the the worn wooden booths, they too joined the conversation between bites of the hearty food and syrupy flat soda.

Despite polls predicting otherwise, one of the three raised doubts about a Democratic win, a hope they all said they subscribed to.

The doubter worried that while the potential election of the African American candidate created the appearance that race no longer plays an active role in American politics, the worry remained, racism could rear its ugly head on election day.

At that point, one of the three teased the doubter about his Southern upbringing, while the other, a New York native laughed but with caution, chimed in, saying what goes on behind the curtain of a voting booth, often stays behind the curtain.

The doubter kept saying that this is America, a place where hypocrisy and secrets often reveal themselves in subtle fashions. He charged that America was still a place where inequity could be measured along racial and class lines and that it was on full display in policy and even in the most mundane activities of day to day life.

This was after all, a nation that would legitimize campaign questions based on rumors about one man's religion while failing to live by a "golden rule" that clearly calls for all people to be treated, as they themselves would want to be treated, with decency, compassion and respect.

Evidence of his charges could be found in countless news stories, statistics and facts. This was a nation where prejudice and discrimination were still tolerated, offering as an example, California, where the threat of Proposition 8 offered reaffirmation that we as a nation allowed the majority to pick and choose who was worthy of equality.

After more polite discussion, lunch was finished, and the three rejoined the day outside where despite the crisp weather, the mood on the sidewalks appeared as flat as the earlier soda, a place where worry infected the collective mindset as fears of financial upheaval, two major wars and a sense of lost direction dimmed the lights at the end of the tunnel.

The downtown streets surrounding the epicenter of business were filled with camera ready tourists and cigarette puffing traders who quietly strolled, all mingling together amidst security barriers, television crews and checkpoints manned by men with guns.

The three friends then made there way back to the original gathering point, and dropped off the one who worked in the area. The other two, hopped on bikes and headed out of the cavernous old New Amsterdam, and over to the open air of the Harbor where the statue of Liberty beckoned. Then, after texting friends and some small talk about the past weekend, the two headed uptown along the river.

Along the way, the two noticed a group of around four casually dressed people who were staring down at the ground. One of them was taking a picture of what appeared to be either a large grey bug. After a good bit of pointing, giggling and conversing in what sounded like Italian, the group, obviously tourists, lumbered along leaving the small creature on the concrete surface.

The two, still on their bikes decided to have a look.

As they made there way over to the little spot, one of the two exclaimed "it's a tarantula!"

"No, it's a sea crab," said the other.

It was in fact a small crab, obviously from the harbor. The crab was moving sideways at the pace of caterpillar, apparently trying to make its way around the concrete barrier into the nearby weeds.

The two stood there and watched the little grey creature, which suddenly began to scurry into the safety of bushes and tall grass.

The crab was then gone, at least, the two on the bikes could no longer see it. They had no desire to dig and find it either, so, they continued to bike north.

As they rode along, they spotted yet another small group of people. Among them this time, a little girl petting what appeared to be a tiny spotted leopard.

"It's a virtual zoo out here!" remarked one of the two friends to the other.

"What is that?" he asked?

In this new group of three, a middle aged looking woman with perfectly white hair, had a large spotted cat on a leash. The cat was eying a squirrel that seemed to be teasing the cat. The squirrel bobbed its head and nibbled on food it took from the ground. The cat, sat with its neck stretched, at full attention, transfixed on the squirrel. The little girl, continued to pet the cat with caution, keeping her distance, while the cat did not seem to notice she was even there. A short distance away, another woman manned an empty stroller.

After a few minutes of staring at this scene, the two on bikes continued uptown.

Finally, they stopped at the World Financial Center, a modern complex of buildings on the shore of the river that adjoins the World Trade Center Site, also known as Ground Zero.

In the small marina at the base of the complex, are several yachts, sail boats and other marine vessels.

The two on bikes bought some peaches and cream gelato at an ice cream store in the complex, then sat outside on a concrete bench and enjoyed the sun.

Here too, despite the sunny day, the mood appeared quiet, subtle, as if New York City was calm before a storm.

The afternoon marched on, the two spent more time taking, pondering their hopes for the future, discussing their belief that government can and should do great things for its people. But still, one of them worried, that on election day polls mean nothing, that in America, even among liberals, racism is like cancer, it whispers as it destroys.

On this Monday in 2008, beneath the ghost of a shadow cast by twin towers that are now gone, the two pondered their hopes for the future, a future they hopped would begin next Tuesday.

After a while, one of the two continued uptown and left the other alone. The doubter sat and thought for a moment. Soon, his worries began to evolve back into bright light of hope.

When hope is real, it usually trumps the the fear of the past.

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