Beer and a Bump
The Chester Club and Oyster Bar only takes cash. Which is good, because the pay-phone hanging on the wall, and the jukebox, only take quarters. There is a long bar along the right wall. There are two pool tables on the left. It is the only establishment in this skid-mark of a town that is open after 2pm. It was dark, raining, Rosie was parked for the night and I was famished.
I stood at the door and did not knock, because it was wide open to the night. The Club part of Chester Club made me wonder if I was even allowed in. My long vision is good, so I made out, in the neon gloom, a chalkboard that says what’s for dinner. Oysters and burgers. I realized the bartender was staring at me. She had a - seriously, don’t eff with me – vibe going on. She looked like she could go two rounds with Muhammed Ali. She called out to me. “You gonna come in, or you gonna stand there? If you’re waiting for the fuckin Maître de, it could be a while.” I bellied up to the bar.
Every other human at the bar appeared to be male – the preferred parfum was fish. It was Cammo Couture and I was glad I had put a hoodie over my jeans - because I usually dress up a bit for dinner. I was freezing. I looked up and down the bar. The preferred beer was Bud or Bud light - in cans. The bumps were Jack Daniels. Down at the end, I saw a guy with what looked like Rainer in a bottle. I pointed at him and said “I’ll take the bottle – no bump.” End guy nodded his head at me. I contemplated what alliance I had just made. I knew I was not getting a glass with the bottle. I wondered aloud about my food choice. “Guess, maybe, this is the place you oughta eat oysters.” Man on my right spit tobacco on the floor at my feet, and said “Only tourists eat oysters in August.” I was relieved because I don’t actually like oysters. “You get a lot of tourists in here?” He looked me up and down. “Nope.” I ordered a burger.
The game was on the TV up in the corner, but most people were turned around watching the pool tables. An ancient man who might have been mummified sat on a folding chair in the other corner, he had a lap full of money. I wasn’t playing pool.
While I waited for my burger, I attended to my beer and stared at the cooler in front of me. It was completely covered in bumper stickers. The sticker consensus was Pro-pot, boobs and bikes, and anti-Meth. This encouraged me, because I have boobs and a bike, and I guess I do approve of pot over meth. My plate arrived – I was the only person in the place eating food. I did not care. Girl’s gotta eat. The Bartender dropped back into a story aimed at the spittin man, which I had apparently interrupted with my hunger. The burger was perfect, the fries were hand cut and miraculous. The story beat both. It was about a local who just went to the State Pen for stabbing his own father. “I punched him in the nose, right here in this bar, not a week before he did it – I should have hit him harder.” she said. “He was born outa his mother’s asshole” said my right-hand mate.
About the time my burger is carried away and my beer is replaced, a young couple comes in. The only two places are to my immediate left. Dude sits by me. He orders a Bud and a bump. She orders a fruity cocktail and a bump. I decide to try some conversation. I ask him if he has a pick in the game. He counters with a statement so racist, I can’t repeat it, about the players who don’t look like him but make money he never will. He follows up with a homophobic slur against the same players. I decide to talk about bikes. I gain a little traction there. After a short convo he declares his intention to piss and goes to the back.
His wife slides over to me. She has another drink and bump. She gets a wooden coin with her second bump - turns out you get one with every third drink. It gets you a free drink. I admire her prize – she lets me have it. “Doesn’t look like you’re ever going to get to your third.” She laughs. The coin says the bar is rated by The New York Times – this is when I realize that I am sitting in the seat of the impossibly possible.
I ask if they have kids, and turns out they have a 9-year-old daughter. She is obviously proud of her, and I get the parent-teacher conference report. I tell her about my 9-year-old grand-daughter and we agree that at 9, girls are really cool. We reminisce about being 9, and having a full slate of girl powers that have not yet been turned in to acquire woman powers. She says her girl is starting to get a little bit of sass. I launch into my standard Mother’s Union lecture # 14, about how important it is to train girls to say ‘no’ by letting them say ‘no’ to you once in a while. “How are they gonna learn if they don’t practice?” She laughs and says “I actually agree with that – but you need to repeat that to my hubby - he’s big on obedience” and she goes out front for a smoke.
He slides over, calls for another beer and bump, and side-eyes me. I re-calibrate and repeat my basic premise. “I know you want her to be able to say ‘no’ to some jerk someday, right? You’re likely not gonna be there when it happens. How is she gonna know how to do that if you don’t teach her how to do it?” He looks puzzled. He wants to argue with this but he can’t figure out where to grab the argument. I plow ahead. “You’re the father, and the father needs to take control of this. You pick the time and the topic, make sure it is not a health or safety thing – something you don’t actually care that much about. You watch for your moment. It needs to be a time when she really wants to say no to you but is naturally afraid to do so. Then set it up so she wins a small battle. An intentional retreat on your part. Let her ‘no’ stick. This has to happen every so often for a while.”
He blinks a couple of times and says “But she has to do this respectful like.”
“Of course! but it can be strong and respectful. I am sure you do this all the time by demonstrating what strong and respectful looks like. You could even get your wife in on it, and play-act the whole thing in front of her sometime.”
He takes a long draw and then purses his lips and stares at the ceiling.
He looks at me like he sees me for the first time. He speaks what may be a novel sentence for him.
“I cannot argue with this – you have given me something to think about.”
I finished off my bottle with an equally long draw. I wished the house a good night. Took my wooden coin and walked off into the night.
I don’t write much about my work. Not because there are not fabulous, hilarious and heartbreaking stories at school. I could write something worthy every day. But by definition and law, the students own their stories, and like the decades of counseling clients and pastoral conversations, their stories stay in my heart until time erases most of them.
But this summer no one is untouched by the ugliness of the overt racism and white supremacy in our streets, our newsfeeds, and in our government.
After the election last year, especially in January I noticed an uptick of boldness of the dark side of the Force in our school. Mostly misogyny. But with swift attention it seemed to quiet.
This August I find myself wondering if the Hitler Youth are going to show up in September. When I looked at the video of Charlottesville, what bothered me most was how many young men were in the pictures. Not much older than my flock.
So, I am thinking about being ready. Ready personally. Ready professionally. To deal with the evils of racism and White supremacy in whatever form I can identify it. I do not judge the thoughts, philosophies or tactics of others fighting evil. I might engage them, but I do not judge them. I was heartened to see Antifa and Pacifist clergy facing danger together. It will take everyone to survive this. All I can do is contextualize the fight to my own life, heart, mind and situation. So I am getting ready.
Personally. Daily questions. Am I patrolling my own thoughts words and deeds for the constant and absolutely culturally pandemic toxins that cause me to cling to my privilege or disadvantage our employees and students of color? Am I owning these thoughts, words and behaviors and rooting them out? For me this is spiritual. I work at all times in all places for a once, and ever, brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. I don’t ask What Would He Do? I ask What Is He Doing? Here, now. I try and do that thing. He never does racist bullshit. He never protects privilege. He sees, listens to, and gives voice to the oppressed. He also never gives up on anyone.
Professionally. I work at a school where the16-21-year-old student body is majority underclass. With a high percentage of trauma survivors. A high percentage with mental health issues. Higher than the general population in gay, queer, trans. Our student body is about 60% white, 30% Hispanic and 10% other. Our school is a voluntary program on a community college campus. I have a college diversity policy that is clear and bold, and the administration above me will back me up in the enforcement of it. I am in charge of discipline for 250 young adults. I have a lot of latitude. I can send them home to change their shirt. I can release them from the program in a moment if I think it is warranted.
But my goal is not to get rid of my overtly racist students. I have had a few. I have been lucky to have dealt with them one at a time. They are young, and I refuse to give up on them just yet. Here is what I have done, and will always try and do. (All of this presumes no physical violence, or direct threats of violence – which always warrant dismissal)
1- Protect the direct victim if there is one. I start by accepting their testimony. And they get to be pissed off, and they get a pass on words they used in their own defense. Then I protect the school environment by at least temporarily removing the offender. I act as swiftly as I can. This is one of those rare times that I have no problem walking into a class and publicly removing someone. It is a small school. This is noticed.
2 – Then clarity. I use my voice. To say No, nope, and in no way. To one and all. With the offender - conversation - but strong, and in the end hierarchical, conversation. This is where I use all the privilege I can muster. And whatever personal and spiritual power that has been put into me. If they don’t accept this and the restrictions it will place upon them, they will be gone. They get mad, but I have yet to lose one at this point.
3- If they accept the discipline put in place, then we continue the conversation. I Affirm their personhood, and treat them with respect that they are not dishing out. Why? Because I want, even for a moment, to separate their personhood from their ideas and behaviors. This would be the first step they would need to take to become ex-fascists. I tell them that I want them in my school and that I want them to graduate. If they accept this from me, I am winning.
4- I try not to kick them out. If the victim does not want to sit with them in class, then the offender gets moved. I may move them from the high school to the GED program. But if I dismiss them, they use that to fuel their delusional persecution story. If I keep them, then for every hour, for each day, that they bring their personhood through the door to try and pass Algebra class, and at least stifle their racism at the door, they are living in the liminal space that makes at least possible, their salvation.
Sometimes I am just not very mindful. I am particularly awful about the gas tank. My coupe is in some ways lacking bells and whistles, which I like; but it doesn’t nag you about the gas, which can be dicey. Sure, there’s a light if you want to look at it, but if you wanted to look at that, you would see the gauge, now wouldn’t you? And as I said, mindful – not always so much. I often end up with a quart or so of juice and a big-thirst engine.
So the other day I was out on the freeway when something made me look, and then look for the nearest exit. I pulled into the very first opportunity – pert near dry.
Here in Oregon we don’t pump our own gas – it’s the law, which makes for regular conversations with strangers. The boomer getting ready to quench my thirst seemed a wee bit distracted. When he had to ask twice about my octane preference, he apologized. “We’re having a little problem with the customers behind you. – sorry”
I looked. Two young black men in a beater. A red-headed pump boy waving his hands at them and calling into the store on his radio. I set the parking brake and got out of the coupe.
I asked my guy. “They having trouble paying for their gas?”
“I don’t know – they said something racial to the kid, and he’s pissed.”
I looked deeper. The two men in the car were agitated and yelling at each other. I stepped over the hose going into my tank and walked to my trunk. A managerial woman came out of the mini-mart and waved off the young pumper, who asked her if he should call the police. “Not yet.” She gets down by their window and is saying that 10 bucks won’t cover the 30-dollar tab. Ginger pumper is writing down their plate and getting out his cell. I walk up with my card out and said to the manager, “I’d be happy to pay their tab.” She stares at me – “Seriously?” I look at, and listen to, the guys in the car who are still yelling at each other - in KISWAHILI. "Um, yes, be my pleasure."
“Jambo, Somali, then?”
“What? Yes.” I have their attention.
“The prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, would like to buy your gas today, is that ok?”
While the relieved manager ran my card, we chatted; the driver had said “Fill it with ten dollars" , and pump guy had only been mindful of the first words. The Somalis now had a full tank and exactly ten bucks between them. The fellow riding shotgun was advising that they drive off having paid what they had promised. The driver thought this might be a bad idea. I told them I would go their bail, but that a better tactic in the future would be to give the money they had to the pumper up front. And not use the word ‘fill’. Shotgun thought that paying first was not a good idea, as then there would be no reason for the pumper not to pocket the bill and give them no gas. Good African sense. We settled on show the money for clarity, and give it over when you got the gas. We discussed the inadvisability of driving off, as they could be chased or found.
I got my receipt for their gas and mine, and wished them well.
They thanked me in both languages and faiths. We shook hands”
“Please, I must know your name” said the driver. I leaned in.
“I am Madame Moto-Muzungu de Bujumbura. Amani. Go with God.”
And two laughing Somalis drove off shaking their heads.
The manager said – “That was the best mom talk I have heard in a long time.”
And maybe it was, because the Mother’s Union is an international organization. Or maybe it was white savior complex, ‘cause I can come down with that on occasion, Or just burning some cheap privilege. Or maybe I invented Gas-Splaining. I don’t know. What it felt like was Luck – my unbelievably consistent luck. Why should I be so privileged, to get to be useful, so often? If I was any good at taking care of my car, I would not have been there.
The red-headed kid looked at me and looked at my pretty red sportscar and said “Must be nice to be rich and able to throw money away.” Oh, son. I don’t actually have much money to throw away, but I am rich – when I remember how rich I am.
Boomer pumper opened my car door and said “Have a good evening, ma'am.”
I said “I always do.” Whenever I pay attention.