Monday, September 26, 2005

Two more stories

I started a post on race in America, and then it reminded me of a story, which I told, and that reminded me of another story, which I also told, and by that time I had completely ruined my post about race in America, having strayed too far from my point to be able to find my way back to it. So I've decided to put them in separate posts. This one's the one with the stories. They are not edifying, just mildly entertaining.

I grew up playing basketball, and in McAlester, Oklahoma, basketball was a black kids' game. White guys played baseball and football, not basketball. My best friend in middle school was the son of the president of the local chapter of the NAACP; his cousin was J. C. Watts, who spent some time as the Sooner quarterback and some more time as one of Oklahoma's Congressmen; and when I walked onto the Princeton University campus I spoke, all in a deep redneck drawl, a mixture of hillbilly Okie and housing-project slang (but with the profanity cleaned out because my parents didn't like it and I loved my parents). I still remember the look of disbelief on my Boston roomate's face the first time I leaned back on our dormroom couch and moaned aloud, "Aw, man, my foots is killin' me." ...continue reading...

I was deadly at the game of "Twenty-One" because I could hit a quick-release pull-up jumper anywhere from twenty feet in, and I shot better than 90% from the free throw line. Well, one day halfway through my senior year in high school, after basketball practice was officially over, about ten of my buddies and I were (as usual) still playing Twenty-One, and I needed only four points to win the game. Also as usual, I was the only white guy on the court. I yanked down a rebound and escaped to the perimeter, and then our point guard (who, I kid you not, went by the nickname "Tootsie") yelled out, "Can't let the Stringer score, he's at 17," and charged out to d-up on me.

And before I thought what I was saying, I cocked my head on one side with a crooked grin and drawled exactly what any of them would have said in such a situation: "Niggah, PLEASE!"

The moment the words came out of my mouth I thought, appalled, "I did NOT really just say that...tell me I did NOT really just SAY that. Holy crap, I think I did just say that." But the effect was not at all what I would have expected. Every one of my teammates collapsed in gales of hysterical laughter, partly at my having said such a thing, but I suspect especially at the look of horror that I know must have been on my face.

Later, I said to Tootsie, "Listen, man, I'm sorry about that nigger thing; and it was nice of you guys to think it was funny instead of getting mad." He just grinned and laughed and said, "Oh, hell, Kenny everybody knows you're not a racist and you don't care what color people are." Then his face sobered. "But if Tank [the other white guy on our team] had said that, I'da beat the livin' shit out of him."

And that reminds me of one other story. Years later, as a late-twenties father of three young kids who had just moved into the small Texas town of Elgin, I escaped the house one Saturday afternoon and went looking for a game. I eventually found a court down at the elementary school, and there were two members of the local high school team -- both black -- playing Twenty-One. I asked if I could join them; and they looked at each other, and then at this not-quite-six-foot 140-pound over-the-hill EXTREMELY white guy, and then back at other; and they snickered; and then said, "Sure."

Halfway through the fourth subsequent game, with neither of them having managed to reach 11 in any of the first three games, I shaked-and-baked one guy on the perimeter and then blew past the other kid to the rim for another bucket. The perimeter guy yelled something derogatory at the second fellow, who slammed the ball onto the concrete in disgust and fired back, "What you talkin' 'bout? That nigger's done beat us three times!"

I'm not sure I've ever gotten a higher compliment...but be that as it may, I'm certainly sure of this: if you had ever asked me if there was anything I was 100% sure my so-blond self would never in my life get called, I think I'd've had to say, "Well, I'm pretty safe from ever gettin' called a nigger..."


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