Thirty-two and single, Laurence viewed the move as an adventure. He’d never been to this part of the United States, and he looked forward to excelling in his new occupation.
To call the city “small” was no exaggeration; the place resembled Mayberry, the tiny town from the Andy Griffith TV show of the ‘60s, except that much of this town’s citizens, employed by the energy company, were what would be considered upper middle class.
But like TV’s Mayberry, from what Laurence had seen during his first week exploring it, there weren’t many people that looked like him—-that is, people of color—either employed by the energy firm or living in the town.
Which is why, during his first visit to the fancy supermarket in the upscale shopping center near his company-appointed two bedroom apartment, Laurence was happy to see, behind the butcher’s counter serving customers, the tall 30-something dark man wearing gleaming butcher whites and a bright smile.
Being vegetarian, Laurence didn’t require the services of a butcher. However, he was comforted that there was some color in the house, so to speak.
Pushing his shopping cart past the long meat counter, he gave a concentrated glance to the butcher, expecting him to look his way in order to offer him a friendly nod. But the meat cutter’s eyes, after darting quickly over at Laurence walking by, went right back to the eyes of the customer before him.
At the time, Laurence didn’t think much of it. But the next week, while shopping, he made his way past the meat counter. Again the butcher, serving a customer, took a nano-second glimpse at Laurence and then went right back to the customer.
“Oh, now I get it,” Laurence said to himself. “He’s one of THOSE Black people.”
Laurence first encountered this when he was a child in Chicago, when his parents would take him and his sister out somewhere—-a Sunday drive, dinner at a fine restaurant, a visit to a museum—-anywhere that might expand their cultural horizons.
Quite often, Laurence’s family would be the only Blacks in these places. But when they did happen upon another Black person there and said hello, it was not unusual that they’d get no reply; the Black person would walk right on by. It was as if THEY wanted to be the only Black people on the scene and Laurence’s family had ruined that.
The young Laurence grew up watching his father speak to everyone he met, no matter who they were. When he asked his father why anyone would not speak when spoken to, his father simply replied, “I guess they didn’t want to, son. You know, Black people don’t have to talk to other people just ‘cause they’re Black.”
As he grew up, when out in the “white” public, Laurence recognized a pattern among some Blacks, which he reasoned to be a residual effect of centuries of being pitted against one another in post-slavery America: in order to feel “special”, some self-loathing Blacks want to be “the only raisin in the milk.”
Moreover, what Laurence interpreted as the butcher’s behavior triggered an emotion in him that transcended color: Laurence’s own personal insecurity.
Throughout his life, Laurence lived with the feeling that he was never enough. When his parents divorced, little “Larry” believed he was at fault.
Get some alcohol in Laurence and decades later he’ll still revisit that time he was in Little League. They lost a particularly big game, he insists, because of him. Meanwhile, the adult Laurence pushes away good women he feels he doesn’t deserve, while fighting to hold onto those who don’t deserve him.
In Laurence’s mind, being ignored by the butcher was simply more proof he wasn’t good enough.
But this time he wouldn’t tolerate it. And so, his next week in the store, he went directly to the meat counter. As the Black butcher served a customer, Laurence stood nearby, as if waiting to be served next. “This Negro is going to TALK to me today,” he told himself. A white butcher asked if he could help Laurence, but he declined, standing there in order to give the Black butcher the opportunity to notice him, nod his head, offer a “What’s happenin’”—-anything.
In serving his customer, the Black meat man disappeared into the back room. Laurence waited a minute or so before aborting his operation and pushing his basket down the aisle. The store’s manager, having noticed Laurence’s edginess, caught up with him in the frozen food section.
“Sir, you finding everything okay?” the manager inquired.
“Uh, yeah. Thank you very much. But tell me–what’s up with your butcher?”
“The tall one,” said Laurence, instead of saying, ‘The Black one.’ “Seems like he’s got a problem dealing with customers.” Laurence couldn’t believe he was actually complaining about this brother to a white man.
“Oh, that’s Anthony. He’s our head butcher. What’s the problem?”
“You tell ME. He seems to have a problem serving customers.”
“I’m sorry about that sir. Specifically what was—”
“I’ve worked in customer service before,” Laurence interrupted, “and he’s not very good at it….”
“Really? I beg to differ,” said the manager. “Anthony is one of, if not THE best employee we have in our organization. But please, tell me the problem and I’ll fix it.”
Of course, YOU think he’s great, Laurence thought to himself; every time I’m in here the brother’s grinnin’ in white folks’ face. “Well, he seems to only talk to certain people.” Laurence had to admit to himself the silliness of it all.
“Have you actually had communication with Anthony?” asked the manager, clearly becoming annoyed.
“Well, yes and no, I looked at him and”—
“Sir,” the manager tersely interrupted, looking around to see if anyone else was in the aisle. “Anthony is deaf.”
“Deaf. He can’t hear. Have you tried to have a conversation with him?”
“Well not really, but”—
“Well, he’s deaf. He waits on our customers by reading their lips. It’s pretty incredible, if you ask me. And he does it all with a smile. The man’s got a masters in theology, but found his niche as a butcher. We moved him to one of our other stores and the people here went nuts complaining…had to bring him back. Cool guy and a very nice man.”
At that point, an employee interrupted the manager and off he went to take care of supermarket business, leaving Laurence literally frozen in the frozen food section to process what he’d just been told.
Reading lips would explain why, whenever Laurence walked by and Anthony was with a customer, he couldn’t really acknowledge Laurence-—he had to keep his eyes on the customer’s lips to understand their request. Wow.
Carrying groceries across the parking lot to his rented crème Lexus, Laurence felt like an idiot. All this time he held on to the idea that Anthony didn’t want to talk, when in reality it was Laurence who hadn’t truly made the effort, victim of his own insecurity-fueled preconceived notions. His mind went to something a dear friend told him a couple of years earlier: “Laurence, you care too damn much about what other people think of you.”
Three days later after a day at the office, Laurence was in the store to pick up laundry detergent. In the distance, behind the meat counter, he noticed Anthony frantically waving him over. When Laurence got there, the smiling meat man extended his arm over the refrigerated display case and shook Laurence’s hand. Then he gave him a handwritten note:
I’M ANTHONY. HEARING IMPAIRED. READ LIPS. I’VE SEEN YOU IN HERE. DIDN’T GET THE CHANCE TO WELCOME YOU TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD! YOU SHOOT POOL?
“Not in a long time,” Laurence said, “but I’d love to start again.” Silent words to which a beaming Anthony, having read his new friend’s lips, gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.
The Twisted was created by Steven Ivory, a veteran journalist, essayist and author, who writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]