Last Saturday, David and I went to the downtown library. Doing so is a simple pleasure in which we often indulge. There's something about all of that information, categorized and numbered and read and treasured and useful forever that makes me feel civlilzed. Intellegent. Hopeful that I, too, can grasp education and self-improvement with the aid of that universal passport, the Library Card.
As we crossed the parking lot, a wizened man shot toward us like some kind of black rocket intent on shaking us down for a few quarters. "Help an old nigger out." he said. David and I cringed, humiliated by the painful surrealism of being two white people in a nice car being panhandled by an old black man in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. "I'll get down on my knees." As he stooped to do so, David grabbed his arm and set him on his feet. I was thankful. At that moment, I couldn't have stood it. This city breathes history from every storm drain. Like coal dust and foundry soot and iron ore, we'll never cast off the scars of freedom riders and firehoses and police dogs. We'd never be allowed even if we could.
When I saw how the heat beat his head mercilessly and recognized his t-shirt from a formal I attended something like ten years ago, the desire to ease this man's burden pressed my heart into turning his scarred hand over and pouring the meager contents of my wallet into his upturned palm. As I did, I put my hand underneath his to steady its shaking and because I somehow wanted to cover those track marks so Jesus wouldn't see. I don't know where my head was. "Heal it from the inside out," I whispered to myself in case heaven was listening. Of course, at that moment, I knew where my quarters would end up. For some reason, I didn't care. I just wanted to make it better for him even if it meant staving off nighttime for a moment or two. Afterwards, he rocketed off to parts unknown for purposes certain.
Ironically, we returned to the library the next day. As we pulled (in our nice car) underneath the electronic gate to the parking lot, a black rocket man popped up outside David's window. "Help an old nigger out," he sang. "We went through this yesterday, remember?" David replied, "And we don't have any more quarters." At that moment, a muscular black security guard emerged from the air conditioning and expelled the man from the parking lot with a shaking fist and a harsh voice. "You the niggers!" shouted the ousted man. "You the white folk, niggers!" he said as he rounded the corner and out of sight. With lowered heads,we went inside.
As we drove home, we talked about who we are and what we do. We counted our blessings, realizing all the while that we can't help who we are any more than we could change our race or erase the reality of our privileged childhoods. We just are. Blessed and grateful, but are just the same. So, home we drove, past the men sleeping in Brother Bryan Park. Past the men and women standing waiting for supper at Highlands Methodist Church. Past Chez Fon Fon and Starbucks and the health food store. Home. Where we belong.