My flight to Sacramento was leaving Philadelphia at six. I wanted to be in the terminal at 4:30. I needed to leave my car in the faraway region of economy long-term parking, which meant I really needed to be at the airport at 4 (giving myself time to catch the big blue shuttle bus). And that meant I needed to leave home at 2:30, giving myself plenty of time to get to Philly.
But first I needed to get the oil changed in my car -- I had been driving with the 'maintenance needed' light for so long that I could swear my little blue box hiccuped and shivered every time I turned the key in the ignition. And I needed to pick up my budgies from the boarder. My sorority sister offered to pet sit (saving me $70), and I'll lean on the shield whenever I get a chance.
It was an atypical Monday morning. I got up at six, did some cleaning up -- I refuse to come home to a messy apartment -- went to work for an hour, then sat at Midas for 45 minutes while they tended to my baby.
I started 'Dreams From My Father,' which had been sitting on my coffee table since March, partly because I'd been doing other reading, partly because I didn't need another reason to believe in Barack Obama. I was only 50 pages in, but already I found his writing to be evocative, analytical, funny, and a host of other adjectives which make it plain that the cat who makes the pretty speeches isn't just some pr invention.
The bird shop didn't open 'til noon, and I was ravenous, so I pulled up at the little deli/diner which sits in the same tiny brick strip mall. It's the kind of place which announces SORRY NO CREDIT CARDS on a white board in crooked black plastic letters, and has an old man who rests on a stool at the lunch counter until a guest comes in, and then he rouses himself to greet them by name.
I took a seat at the counter and placed my order with him -- ham and egg breakfast sandwich, coffee, and orange juice. It was like being in another era. And maybe it's because California is dusty, sun baked, yet still somehow feels new and raw, that I'll never stop being surprised at how New Jersey feels old and settled, in a kind of 1950s time warp -- unless you're in Newark or Trenton, where it seems like it could be 1987.
It occurred to me as I sipped my weak coffee, that the old man who brought it to me could probably remember a time when a person who looked like me wouldn't have considered sitting where I sat. I was the only nonwhite person in the place. No one gave me a second glance, though. And that was unsettling, in its own perfectly unconcerned way. I instinctively avoid places that don't have anyone of color in them; more so now than I did before I went to Howard. It seems that after I found a place where I finally felt comfortable and free to be myself, I just developed a different kind of self-conciousness. There's just a certain -- usually unfounded -- worry I won't be welcome. It's not a fear of violence or blatant racism. The worry begat laziness. Why bother if I don't have to? Now I suspect it's a similar feeling that keeps ethnic groups apart. Not malice, not fear... just laziness.
But as I ate my brunch in unfamiliar surroundings, around people I wouldn't talk to, socialize with, or even think about on a regular basis, I couldn't help feeling comfortable. I read my book and looked up from time to time, watching the old man say hello to Catherine and Steve and Benjamin, and it made me smile.