Two Lives, Two Americas
Updated: Jun 28
Last week my son and I attended a Black Lives Matter demonstration together. It was not his first BLM event, but it was a new experience for me. Because if you’re a willing parent, you can always learn from your children.
My learning first began when I was 20 years old, long before I became a father. That summer I was at my third college, living on Long Island, and working at a huge self-service gas station on Sunrise Highway in Rockville Centre. We met on my first day and within a week we were friends. Soon after we became better friends. And when I got married years later, I asked him to be my best man. But there was a lot I didn’t know that first summer when I was 20.
We had worked an overnight shift—11 pm to 7 am—and then decided to go back to his house. The plan was to swing through Mickey D’s drive-thru and then hang in his basement, eating greasy breakfast food, drinking canned beer, and watching a Mister Ed marathon on cable for hours on end. The stuff that 20-year-olds did in the 1980s. So we took his car. I lived just east of Rockville Centre, in Baldwin. He lived just west of Rockville Centre, in West Hempstead. Rockville Centre and its neighboring towns were worlds apart. Perhaps the starkest example of this is that RVC was one of the few Zip codes in Nassau County that had its own town police force, and the cop cars were much cooler too. At the time I didn’t think to wonder why that was.
We were stopped at a red light when one of those Rockville Centre cop cars hit the siren behind us. I turned around and laughed. Of course I laughed. Because I was 20. And because I was white. And because our manager at the gas station drilled into us that a $1 pack of Marlboro reds was always 50¢ for local cops. They smiled and thanked us when they stopped in for discounted smokes on practically every shift, which was good because the dirty little secret was that the 24/7 rotating security camera above our heads had no film in it. And I also laughed because we had done nothing, not a single thing wrong, and that’s a critical component when you’re white and still believe in judicial cause-and-effect. And because you can’t grow up Irish Catholic in Queens, as I did, without having blood relatives who had been (or still were) on the job. I may even have remembered that time when my grandmother had let me hold my grandfather’s old NYPD billy club, and how I smelled the ancient wood, still too young to wonder what stories that club might have told.
And maybe I laughed because about a year earlier I had been pulled over by a Nassau County cop in Baldwin, after I made an illegal left turn through a dry cleaners parking lot to avoid a red light in the turning lane. That cop had been smiling when he walked up to my door. He stared at my license—the license that clearly read WILLIAM just before the Irish surname. Then he handed it back and said, “So, Bill…don’t be cutting through the Nu-Clear Cleaners. Wait in line like everybody else.” And that was that. As it should be in America.
Of course I stopped laughing when I turned and noticed my friend’s face as we pulled to the curb. Then I saw two cops approaching, one on each side. And I certainly wasn’t laughing when the cop on the driver’s side barked out, “Hands, motherfucker!” And so my friend calmly put his hands on the steering wheel. He had a look on his face that I had never seen before—a look that at once signaled weariness and bitterness. And instinctively I knew that despite our closeness I had never known such a look could be second nature to him, because until then there hadn’t been a reason for me to see it. Even during all the verbal brawls with knucklehead customers at the gas station. This was different. Although I would certainly see that look again in the future, it was new to me. I turned to the cop on my side, incredulously, but he said nothing. The driver door cop asked him where we were coming from, which was laughable since we were both still wearing our Merit Oil work outfits, oversized white and black smocks with a huge red M on the right breast. He asked him where he was going. He asked him where he lived. And then he asked him for license and registration. And as my friend reached across me to the glove box, the cop on my side quietly put his hand on his weapon. And I felt something I had never felt in my entire life. Something Americans are not supposed to feel when they’ve done nothing wrong. The worst kind of fear that something could go terribly, terribly amiss, and for absolutely no discernible reason. None. That early morning could have devolved into the worst imaginable outcome, when it was just supposed to be about Egg McMuffins and Foster’s beer and Wilbur’s talking horse.
I forget the rest of the dialogue on the driver’s side of the car. But the words didn’t matter. Because that first “motherfucker” set the tone. And the cop on my side took an awfully long time taking his hand off his weapon. There was no ticket, but then again there had been no infraction in the first place. Later I learned that this too was normal. They went back to their car and pulled out in front of us at high speed. My friend predicted that they would tail us—from in front—straight to the West Hempstead line. Which in fact they did.
And so it was a different morning in the basement that summer day. I had many questions, and every answer seemed to prompt a dozen more questions. I told him that I had been driving for three years and I had been pulled over exactly once. Then I learned that on average he was pulled over at least four times a year. But why, I wanted to know? Yes. Can you imagine? I actually asked that. I asked that question as only a white American could ask such a question of a Black American.
Please please please please don’t keep denying the existence of what millions of your fellow Americans know in their bones to be true. It’s real. It’s tangible. And it’s been this way since the first ship docked in Virginia in 1619. As much as we close our eyes and wish it wasn’t, it’s just as real in 2020. More real. Believe the endless videos. Talk to people of color and allow them to enlighten you. Recognize that no matter what your disadvantages and what your burdens—and I for one have had more than my equitable share of both—you still don’t have this particular disadvantage or this particular burden. And acknowledge just how engrained and systemic this is, and always has been. Then ask yourself the questions none of us want to ask. The frightening questions, the uncomfortable questions. Like why you’re more enraged over broken plate glass windows or looted television sets than you are over the needless taking of human lives by those who swear to protect us all. I don’t state this snidely. They’re the tough questions precisely because they’re the questions that many of us have had the luxury not to ask ourselves. Or ask of people close to us, people we love. If I hadn’t been in the car that morning, I may or may not have ever asked such questions either. Only now every American has to confront these questions. We simply can’t continue as we always have. The center cannot hold.
So of course I know it’s real. Because I was in the wrong car on the wrong morning, long before the age of instant video. It’s as real as the polar opposites of two simple greetings.
1) “So, Bill…”
2) “Hands, motherfucker!”
The other night my son and I had a lengthy discussion about the state of the nation I grew up loving, and that he is actively seeking to change for the better. And it occurred to me that of all the talks I’ve had with him, I never had to have “The Talk” with him. The talk that most white Americans aren’t even aware of, or might even doubt if it was explained to them. But the talk that every parent or caregiver of an African-American child knows all too well, and has had with each and every son and daughter, not for years now but for centuries. The talk designed to keep a minor child alive when confronted not by a criminal, but by a symbol of authority. Here, in the United States of America.
When you see the next viral video du jour, please consider stopping to mull it over before you speak this time. Before you say, “But he must have done something to—”
Or, “Listen, if you play by the rules and speak politely and do what you’re told then—”
Or, “Sure, but it turned out she had a criminal record so—”
Or, “C’mon, I’ve been pulled over a dozen times and nothing ever—”
It’s real. It’s real for far too many Americans, even as it may not be real for you. But that’s how reality works—what’s real is never one size fits all. Not even in America, despite what we’ve always been promised.