In the mid 1990s, Rom and I made a few marathon road trips across the U.S. We stopped at roadside cafes and picnicked in wilderness areas. Occasionally, we stepped into Cracker Barrel, a chain of restaurants across America that serve good wholesome Southern food. Without exception, the clientele was always white. I felt unwelcome; I can’t say what it was since nobody was rude.
I mentioned my unease to a friend later and he commented, “Cracker Barrel is boycotted by every minority. Didn’t you know that?” This was a prelude to our travels in the south and it didn’t bode well.
As we headed for the Southeast, Rom said, “You know it’s possible some of my friends we are going to meet are racist.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Just saying.”
“How should I react?”
We drove in silence. I worried I might upset Rom’s decades-old friendships. He was more concerned about people hurting me. But it turned out fine, mostly. Although the Civil War had ended more than a century and half ago, many flew the rebel flag on their boats and on flagpoles in their front yards. Good-naturedly, they ribbed Rom for being a Yankee, while Rom rebuffed, “I’m no Yankee, I’m Injun.”
Then one of Rom’s buddies volunteered, “We never treated slaves badly. Why would we? Would you treat a horse badly?” I bristled. Rom caught my eye and winked. I let it go.
Later, another of Rom’s friends commented, “All of us blonde and blue-eyed people came from elsewhere.”
I retorted, “You mean from outer space?”
“Yeah. Whites are fine but we are special.”
Rom wasn’t around to rein me in and I got into a pointless argument that ended only when my throat became sore.
The next day, the blonde and blue-eyed friend got a call from a hysterical woman who had seen a “black snake” in her house. We jumped into the pick-up truck and headed towards her. On the way, Rom’s pal grumbled, “It’s a black mamma’s house. How’re we gonna find anything there?”
I asked in a hoarse whisper, “What do you mean?”
He replied, “Black people houses are a mess. S*** lying everywhere, chicken bones thrown behind doors. We’ll never find a snake there.”
“We’ll see soon enough,” I thought to myself.
The lady was waiting outside her trailer home. She incoherently gesticulated towards the front door. The house was in chaos; things spilled out of everywhere. I looked behind the door, half-expecting to see chicken bones. There were none. Phew!
The men peered under and behind things. Clothes lay in heaps on the sofa. Cardboard pizza boxes were strewn haphazardly on the table. Shoes of different sizes lay on the floor around me. Looking for a snake here was like looking for the proverbial needle. I told myself angrily, “Even if Rom’s friend was right about the mess, he’s still a racist sombich”. Eventually, we found a harmless black racer behind the window curtains.
On our way north, we stopped at a gas station. Rom walked to the store to buy coffee while I filled the tank. I wanted something to eat and I called out, “Hey boy!” I don’t remember which movie character I was impersonating; it had gone from a private joke to mannerism. Here in India, that phrase from American slavery days has no context.
However, I hadn’t noticed the two African-Americans at another pump until they whipped around on their heels. They didn’t know I was calling Rom as I had just turned towards them. They looked away quickly. It took me a long moment to realize what had happened. I called out, “Sorry.” No acknowledgement. Rom, who witnessed this exchange, was amused by my faux pas. Hunger forgotten, all that mattered then was those two guys thought I, brown skin and all, was racist.