On a busy Saturday night, an attractive couple hailed me from the front of "Nectar's Lounge and Restaurant," as the bar's rotating sign announces in glorious orange neon. Decked out in tony leather jackets, they struck me as likely Montréalers. Vermonters, as a rule, tend to dress down.
The man looked about 40 and had a dark, Mediterranean complexion and thick, wavy black hair. The woman appeared perhaps 10 years younger and vaguely Asian, but who knows? In our increasingly globalized world, so many people are born of mixed-race parents that it's a crapshoot to guess origins, and that's probably a good thing. Brainwashed like everyone else, I have to remind myself that racial and ethnic categories are manmade constructions that the powers-that-be use to sow divisions among the rest of us and consolidate that power. That's a mouthful, but it's true.
"Where to?" I asked as they settled into the backseat.
"La Quinta," the man replied, pronouncing it "La Kwinta."
"You got it," I said, "and, for what it's worth, I think the hotel is pronounced 'La Keenta.'"
"Well, that's one more thing I'm never going to remember," said the man with a laugh.
"So, you guys visiting from Montréal?"
"Yeah, we've lived in Montréal the last couple of years. I'm from Jersey, man. Italian American as they come. Fuhgettaboutit."
"Beautiful," I said. "I grew up in Brooklyn and had a lot of Italian friends. There were some great Italian neighborhoods back then. New York is constantly changing, so I don't know about now. Anyway, I remember there was this one high-end section of Bay Ridge that was considered the safest in the city. I mean, you could walk through this enclave at two in the morning with a thousand bucks pinned to your coat, and nobody'd touch ya. And that was because, supposedly, this was the neighborhood where the Mafia kingpins lived."
"Tell me about it," the guy said. "The old Italian gangs knew something about honor and respect. These nigger gangs now, there's none of that. They'll just as soon shoot anybody for whatever reason."
I hate this kind of talk. It offends me. It actually makes me sick to my stomach. And the odd thing is, you never know when it's coming. It could come out of the mouth of the friendliest guy in the world.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Here was this guy bragging about his gang — the Mafia — being superior to gangs composed of black men. For God's sake, whether black, white, Asian or Latino, these are violent criminal organizations, making money off the misery of others. It's like arguing over who's the better dictator — Hitler, Pol Pot or Stalin.
In any event, I had to speak up. It's a promise I made to myself years ago. Even when it doesn't appear to go well, I always feel better for making the effort.
I said, "Why do you have to bring race into this? What does that have to do with anything?"
"Niggers don't care about people the same way," the woman explained, jumping into the fray. "That's just a fact. If you lived near them, you'd know."
Great, I thought. It's both of them.
"That's just screwed up," I said, my emotion rising. "I lived around black people in Brooklyn, and I live alongside black folks in Burlington. And I can't see any difference. Every kind of people cares about the same things as far as I can tell — we're all loving and stupid and giving and selfish in equal measure, no group more than another."
I knew I was ranting, but I didn't care. I get into these contretemps a few times a year, and I hope that my eloquence — in the heat of the battle — has improved with time. At any rate, I've come to believe that there's no wrong way to confront hatred. You just show up, speak from the heart and, to quote Carrie Underwood, let "Jesus take the wheel." Whatever comes out will be just fine. (And I'd hope that Carrie would approve of the Buddha, Prophet Muhammad or any other bona fide God representative as your personal wheelman.)
"Hey, I'm sorry if we offended you," the man said. "I have nothing against black people. I was just calling it as I see it."
That's just too easy, I thought to myself. It's amazing how racism exists, but somehow nobody is a racist.
"Well, maybe you better reconsider," I countered, "because that's some hateful ideas you're putting out there."
We rode in awkward silence for the remainder of the ride. As we pulled up to the hotel entrance, the man asked, "So, how do you like driving cab in Vermont?"
"I get asked that a lot," I replied, shifting the vehicle into park. "And I can answer honestly that I really like it. I meet all kinds of people and I learn a lot about life."
"Do you get into fights with many of them?" the man asked, chuckling. He was jesting, attempting to ease the tension of the last 10 minutes.
"Not really," I replied, looking back to meet the guy's eyes as I shook my head. "Only with the jamooks from Jersey," I added.
My customer laughed. "Guilty as charged, dude — guilty as charged."
I laughed along, dropping any residual anger toward him and his woman. And I did so because only love transforms hate. That's the message of Gandhi, King and Mandela, the core teaching of all the great spiritual traditions, and a simple truth borne out time and again by my life's experience.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.