A Matter of Race
You are standing at the bus stop by the small concrete bridge on Manor Road after a long day at the Windsor Valley Branch Library in Austin. Before you left you moved all the chairs and swept the floors and you stirred the toner in the copy machine so people can make clean and clear copies in the morning. You turned out most the lights at the breaker box and flipped over in the front window the open sign to closed.
Yes, it has been a long day. A man came in looking for The Anarchist Bible, a large black-colored paperback book that was all the rage in 1975. He said he wanted to make a bomb. You are the branch’s designated reference librarian and know the book is on the shelves but lie and say no, the whole Austin library system doesn’t stock the book.
You are here to serve the public, not to get the public blown up. Timothy McVeigh’s bombing the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995, and the attack of 9/11/2001 in New York City, are far in the future, but you know of Charles Whitman killing fourteen students in 1966 from the tower at UT in Austin.
A second agitated man comes in to say his wife has cheated with his best friend. He wants to sue his now former army buddy for alienation of affection. You take him to the law book section to the left of the check out counter. You don’t expect to find such a law, but there it is in a compact Texas statue book. The law is from the 19th century and you’ve never heard of it being used, but at least the patron isn’t out to shoot anyone.
A third happy man comes in much later carrying a beat-up violin. He holds it up so you can see the mark inside. He thinks his violin could be a Stradivarius. Your small branch location actually contains a book of line drawings with violin makers’ markings, and what the man has shown you matches pretty well the picture in the reference text.
You call the music department at the University of Texas and ask to speak with a violin professor. The professor says it’s standard practice to put such seals inside to suggest the violin is a copy of a famous original. “Sort like all those baseball bats that were signed ‘Ted Williams’ when I was a kid,” you say back.
“You got it,” the professor says.
You tell the man at the counter what the professor has said. It’s doubtful it’s a Stradivarius, but if he wants to check further, you give him the address and phone number of a nearby violin shop.
So now the long amazing day is done and you’re waiting at the corner for the six o’clock bus to come tooting along to pick you up and carry you safely home. You like your job. It’s interesting, and you like your fellow library personnel. You also love riding the bus. Buses and bigger and safer. You get to look out the window, you get study passengers, and you can read a book. It sure beats driving.
Why don’t more people ride buses?
You see your bus coming down Manor from the northeast. The driver inside doesn’t look happy. You look him in the eye and he gives you a little shake of the head and then, amazingly, drives right by you.
Suddenly your Irish is up. There’s not another bus till seven.
You leap out into the street and you throw your quarters at his bus. It’s a fast throw, no time to aim, but sure enough you hear a slight clink as the coins strike the back of the bus.
Suddenly the bus driver slams on the air breaks, throws open his sliding front door, and charges down the bus stairs, racing back up the street toward you. You are stunned, but sure enough you start running away. You’re carrying a pile of library books. They start to fall out of your arms but you make it across the little bridge. You’re beyond the sidewalk now headed across a yard when the bus driver tackles you from behind. It’s a good tackle. He must have played high school football.
The bus driver stands up first and starts smiling. “It’s all right,” he says, and leans over to help you up. He doesn’t help you pick up the books. “You can get on the bus,” he adds. “Everything’s cool.” You start walking toward the city bus sitting right there in the middle of Manor Road. Traffic is light and no one has come by. It’s a Sunday in April and all day it’s looked like it is going to rain. The bus driver stays behind you, even as you climb on the bus, and that makes you nervous. You take a seat right behind him.
As soon as the bus begins roll and the front door is closed, the driver reaches under his left arm with his right, holding the wheel with his left hand, and pulls out a phone. You had no idea buses had phones. He calls the police, announcing he has “a nut on the bus,” and asks the police to meet him at the corner of Red River and Nineteenth (What is now Martin Luther King Boulevard).
The bus stops, and soon three Austin city police cars are parked, one in front and two in back. You get off the bus and the driver follows. You have no idea what will happen next. Will they handcuff you and take you down to Austin’s infamous city jail, where people howl in their cells all night and everyone freezes? The bus driver’s face remains red with anger. Maybe he hates hippies and despises your long hair and beard. Could he be a Vietnam veteran? The war will be over soon, in August, when helicopters grab the last evacuees off the embassy roof before the Viet Cong occupy the fortress-like complex in Saigon. All this is going on before the Austin City Bus System has been modernized, re-capitalized, and professionalized with its own tax district, and renamed Capital Metro. Drivers now are held to stricter standards of conduct.
The police are however professional. They separate you and the driver by some twenty feet so you can’t hear each other. Two officers with each listen to your sides of the story, and one officer travels between. You are thinking on your feet here. You tell the police that you are also, like the bus driver, a city employee. You are employed by the Windsor Library Branch to handle reference questions and you have a PhD in English. You explain you were waiting for the bus where you always wait and always get picked up, and this particular bus driver shook his head “no” and drove by you on an evening when it looked like it was about to rain.
You don’t know what the bus driver is saying about you to his two police officers, but you suspect it is not good. The policeman traveling between the two groups suddenly goes over and walks around the bus slowly, looking for marks and nicks. He puts his hands on some places. He walks around the bus twice.
Then he comes up to you and looks you straight in the eye, asking, “Did you throw a rock at the bus?”
As a kid you watched a lot of Perry Mason courtroom TV. Your answer is forthright and honest, “No, I didn’t throw a rock.” Maybe you shouldn’t have put it quite that way. You’ve provided a little hint, but the policeman doesn’t pick up on it to ask if you threw anything else at the bus.
The officer then tells you that the bus driver is considering suing you, through the bus system, for damaging city property. Still thinking fast, you tell the officer that you are going to sue the driver and bus company for public assault and injury. Your back now hurts, you lie.
The officer pauses and thinks for a moment, and then gets on the city bus to interview the riders and get their testimony about what happened. At this moment you think your goose is cooked.
You got on the bus in a black area of Manor Road. The bus driver is black. All the riders on the bus are black. You are the only white person. The riders are going to side with the driver, out of racial loyalty. Yes, your goose is cooked.
The officer gets off the bus and comes up to you, “They all told me he drove by you. They even heard him curse,” the officer says. “They also said he tackled you on the ground.”
“OK,” you say, relieved. You are amazed, My fellow riders seem to want to see justice in the world, not only for themselves, but for others. They know what it’s like to picked on, so now they are for the truth.
“You’ve got witnesses; the driver’s got nothing. No evidence of damage to the bus. You can write down the names and addresses for you of these witnesses, if you like, but that means you’ll have to hire a lawyer. You might win your case, but who knows if the driver has any money to pay the court costs, your lawyer, and any damages you’re awarded.”
“The bus company has money,” you say back. “Fixing an injured back can cost a lot. I might not be able to work again.” You put my right hand on my back.
While talking you have been looking over at the driver. He seems to have settled down a bit, but you’re glad the two police officers are with him, in case he tries to chase you again. He’s a stockier man than you, and in his mid-twenties, while you are in your mid-thirties. Something keeps telling you he is a Vietnam veteran. You feel it in your bones. He’s suffering from shell shock or something. It’s more than a case of a black man hating a white man, you feel, and why shouldn’t a black man resent being sent off by white men to kill yellow men?
It is late and you’re tired. You don’t want the hassle and time wasted involved in going to court. You’d been in courts before back in the day when you could afford to own a car and someone on parole had hit your parked car and drove away. Plus, in truth it’s just not in you to lie and pretend to a back injury.
“Both of you do have six months to change your minds,” the officer says.
You are a bit surprised when the bus driver gets back on his bus and drives off, leaving you stranded just west of I-35, miles from your married student Brackenridge apartment along the Colorado River, west of Deep Eddy Pool, where you live with your wife and two boys, but you’re used to trudging long distances since you don’t own a car.
But then, as luck would have it, a friend comes along, spots you struggling along with the books, and stops to offer a ride.
You don’t have to worry about the rain after all.
One of the great things a writer gets to do is to take bad things and turn them into good. The bad you experienced here wasn’t that bad, but now it’s turned into a good by the story,
like an alchemist turning lead into gold. You’ve been entertained, and you’ve learned about race, although you’d rather say ethnicity, since there’s only one race–the human race. More melatonin, making for a darker skin, is merely a response to places on the globe with strong sunlight, like Africa, Southern India, and South America. It’s an evolutionary adaptation to prevent skin cancer and save human life. That’s all.
You hope to God your ancestors, if they still struggle to make lives in Texas four hundred years from now–assuming there still is a livable Texas despite global warming–will have become much darker, in order to deal with the killer sun that haunts six months or more in the summer.
Getting a tan has never protected the body much. No, your ancestors better be brown or black, because being white and getting a tan makes you wrinkle faster and look older, and increases your chances of skin cancer.