01 March, 2005

Why I am not with the program lately

I have been revising a thesis, interviewing for positions in academia, applying for other positions in academia, doing more revising of the thesis, and... well, I can't think of much else. All that reading and writing makes it hard to work up the energy and type something here. I've actually had a few ideas, and I consequently forget them. I do remember one thing, though.

Driving to my parents' house Saturday evening, I passed through Emporia, Virginia. I turn up my nose at the gasoline stations in town, since they charge a higher price than the stations in North Carolina! I guess it must be due to the fact that I-95 and US-58 cross in Emporia. I prefer to drive a few miles out of town and visit Uncle Odie's Exxon.

It was early evening, and I approached Uncle Odie's from the west, to make the right turn into the station. At the same time, a pickup truck approached from the east, to make a left turn into the station. The driver signaled, but didn't slow down. Technically, he's supposed to yield the right-of-way, but he wasn't acting like he would.

I noticed this, and I was going to slow down, but then he appeared to have a change of heart, and stopped on the verge of the turn. Noticing this as well, I let up on the brake — but he had just noticed my hesitation, so he hammered his accelerator. I hit the brake again, exclaiming, "Hey, hey, hey!" (as if he could hear me) and came to a complete stop. This time, I waited until the driver of that pickup got out of my way, and wondered if he was drunk.

The pickup didn't hesitate any longer; he proceeded into Uncle Odie's, and I followed, driving up to a different pump. In the light of the gas station, I saw that the truck was painted in camouflage; the driver coming out of it was a big guy (probably twice my size) wearing a camouflage shirt. He looked every bit the rural hunter.

The driver called out to me with cheer in his voice: Hope I din'n scare ya there; I wan'n goin' to run you over.

Yeah, I was wunderin', I answered. I'm not much of a conversationalist, and surviving a near-accident doesn't loosen my stuffiness any.

I did notice that someone inside the cabin of the pickup truck was making some sort of duck noise. I noticed it, but didn't wonder about it.

The driver continued: Aww, I woud'n run you over; you're one of us!

This time I turned around with a puzzled look on my face. Hunh?

You know, you're one of us, adding with enthusiasm: white!

My jaw must have dropped. Uncle Odie's is frequented by non-whites: both customers and employees. I couldn't believe I was hearing such a baldly racist statement.

Aw, don't say that, I responded with dismay.

Well, that killed the conversation. The driver went inside the store to pay for his gas; I followed a few minutes later, to pay for my gas and to buy a Cherry Coke. He was still at the counter, engaged in an animated conversation with the cashier about some product he was interested in buying. The cashier was promising it to him in a few days or weeks; they were talking like they knew each other and were good friends. The cashier, by the way, looked Middle Eastern.

On my way out, the pickup truck was pulling away. As it passed before me, I saw one of the passengers blowing on a device that must have been a duck call, since it was making the duck noises I'd heard earlier. He was looking right at me, so I nodded and sort-of saluted with my Cherry Coke-wielding hand.

I thought about it a while afterwards. Was the guy really racist? or did he just say those words as a joke? am I that tightly-wound that I can't distinguish a joke from true racism? would a racist be having a friendly conversation with a Middle-Easterner? I admit that I consider many jokes offensive that other people wouldn't — but I didn't think I was that far gone, to think a guy racist who was merely making a joke.

These last few years, I have lived and worked among the "academic elites"; this guy was not one of these "elites"; he is very much like a number of friends I had in school, and even like part of my family, with whom I am almost never in contact. I never thought of myself as one of those ivory-tower types who look down their noses at the common man, with whom they are out of touch except for a few hours a week of teaching duties (if that).

After Saturday, I'm not so sure. When I can't decide if an off-color remark is racist or merely poor taste, it's clear that something's wrong.

I guess the consolation is that I'm also out of touch with most of the academics I know. Where does that put me? If I'm not in the ivory tower, and I'm not among the masses, where do I belong? I mean — besides sitting at a writing desk, revising the thesis.

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