Douglas Page

science writer

608 Esplanade - 7 Redondo Beach, CA 90277 (310) 316-0104

November 17, 1998 Editor The Des Moines Register, An apology to an old black man from an old white man. Last Thursday I approached a car rental counter at the Des Moines Airport at 7 a.m. to return the keys to a rental. I was leaving Des Moines after my first visit home in 34 years. When I lived in Urbandale there was a monastery at Merle Hay and Douglas. At the counter, an old black man was already waiting to be helped. For a few moments the agent, who was on the phone, ignored us both. Then, three distressing things happened. First, when the agent hung-up, she turned directly to me, reaching for my keys and papers, completely ignoring the man in front of me as though he wasn’t there, as if his presence didn’t matter, as if the order of service had been predetermined by the color of our skin and not the order of our arrival and that he would be dealt with only after the white people had been helped. Equally distressing was the old black man’s reaction. There was none. Sadly, acceptance of his ‘place’ in society apparently solidified long ago behind those detached, smokey eyes and he remained silent and still. Disciplined by a life lived as the target of blunt bigotry, he didn’t shift his gaze or flinch a finger in protest. My reaction, however, was most distressing of all. Instead of deferring to the old man in front of me, instead of doing the decent thing, saying “I believe this gentleman was here first,” I handed her the papers and the keys, collected my receipt and departed.

Drifting away toward the gate I felt shame that such oppressive behavior still exists and that I had tacitly yielded to it. And I felt sorrow for the old black man who took no visible notice of my bad manners, of what must to him have been just one more indignity in a life slurred by militant incivility. It’s possible the incident happened differently than I saw it. I hope I’m completely wrong. Perhaps the agent was already helping the old black man and the phone call pertained to his transaction with her. But that’s just it. I didn’t know. At the very least, butting in front of him was impolite. At the very worst, if the incident was indeed bare-naked racism, I left it undressed. If it’s true that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, then that morning I was part of the problem. I’m sorry for that. The monastery may be gone, but other, less endearing, artifacts of the past remain in Des Moines, and elsewhere. Sincerely, Douglas Page Redondo Beach, CA

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