Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Under the Thumb of Giants

I once was commissioned to run a road show that ran in 24 cities in 32 days. I was alone with 16 steamer trunks of gear and pocketsful of cash I needed for airport luggage handler bribes. It was a product introduction for a fortune 500 food company, some new and improved veggie line they were hawking to independent food brokers from sea to shining sea; and I was the media entertainment.

Generally I stayed clear of clients, particularly those that were not mine. I'd done the soundtrack on this show, but I was just a vendor who happened to have the time to truck across country for a month; it was my buddy Leo who'd produced the material and knew the executives I was traveling with. But 30 days is a long time to see each other for a few hours every day, and eventually I had no choice but to be gracious to the guys who were inadvertently paying my check. They were your average good ol boys; salesmen that could glad hand with a straight face, masters of manipulation all.

I'd been invited to dinner more than once, and had excused myself with tech talk each time. But by the time we reached Galveston I was dog tired and out of lies. I agreed to the invitation and hoped to get in and out as fast as my feeding hand would stuff my face. It didn't occur to me that we'd have company. My clients had invited their targets to dinner as well, and by the time I tucked my napkin there were near 30 people at the banquet table. Then the circus began.

I've said many times that stereotypes aren't made from whole cloth, and this was a circumstance that proved my point. Two members of the staff were from Minnesota, the rest were regional; so 28 of thirty were from Texas and the surrounding ring of states. All were white, all were middle age or better and all were attempting to one up the next guy with tales of their personal wealth; and they all had a story to tell I soon discovered.

During dinner they did a joke round, each moron in turn telling a little funny while the rest of us choked down our wilted salads and cleansed our palates with sorbet in wait for the next course.

Without exception the butt of each joke was one of three subjects; blacks (though black was not the word of the day), democrats and Catholics. It went on for the entire meal, the mostly black banquet staff surprisingly professional in light of the language being dragged through their workplace.

I have to admit that some of the jokes were pretty damn funny and I'm betting I laughed at more than one punch line. But I was at least able to defer my place in the chain as I was an outsider, so I didn't need to come up with a vulgarity of my own.

I thought about walking out, about calling them on their obvious isms. I had 6 cities to go and responsibility for my friend who'd given me the work; an outburst would get me nothing but trouble all around. So I sat it out, concentrating on my food and the various kitchen help that swarmed over us as we ate. I was able to avoid eye contact with nearly everyone at the table, so was never called on to nod in agreement, or pass a knowing smile to a fellow bigot. That was, until the meal was over and a toast was made.

It was the CFO that decided to thank me for my diligence, the biggest dog of the big dogs I'd spent a month with. He praised my work ethic, my creativity and my boundless patience as he had the table raise a glass in my honor.

I was stunned, and moved I have to say. It was as if I was watching a cock fight one minute, and a prayer service the next. I had no idea what to say so I blubbered some type of thank you and prepared to take my leave. And then he asked "So what do you think of our little round table...pretty fun bunch-o-guys, no?"

I was already on my feet and at my size, easily the center of attention. As all eyes turned to me, my first vision was of a burning cross and a set of pointy cotton hoods. I had only a moment to respond and "fuck y'all" was the only thing that was coming to mind. Truth be told, there's a time and place for everything and this was neither for making a stand. Jack Kennedy couldn't have changed any minds at this table, there was nothing to gain from being a hero and everything to lose.

"I'm a Catholic who once studied to be a priest. I've voted Democrat in every election I've been allowed to participate in. And both my business partner and my primary employee are black. So I guess I take exception to being the brunt of your jokes."

It just came out, and once it had, I had no idea what to add to it. I just scanned the room, 28 mouths agape and one grinning over his Cuban cigar, as whatever I might have said in completion simply stuck in my throat.

"Thanks for dinner guys, see ya tomorrow", I finally added as I backed away from the silent table and walked out of the room...the longest minute of my life to that date.

The next morning the man who'd toasted me sought me out to accompany him to breakfast. He didn't make a big deal out of it, but he apologized for the night before. I told him to leave it there, that he owed me nothing. That if he wanted to apologize to someone, to take it to the staff who'd served and waited on tables all night, and calmly listened to their husbands, wives and children being dragged through the mud for a good ol laugh or two. And then I held my breath, shocked again at my brashness and waiting for the hammer that would surely fall.

He actually looked ashamed, and for a minute I thought I'd cut my throat, proselytizing to a power broker who could have my financial ass if he was so inclined. He nodded and agreed with my interpretation, and excused himself to beg forgiveness from the kitchen crew. I damn near choked on my eggs Benedict.

Sometimes doing the right thing takes great skill and fortitude, and sometimes it's just instinct. I didn't care really if my clients made amends with those they'd insulted, including myself. My skin isn't that thin that I can't take a non-malicious poke in the eye here and there, and it's not my job to eliminate bigotry from the planet. But I was so damn happy I'd made the right choice not once but twice in 24 hours, that my feet didn't touch the ground for days.

In the scheme of things it was nothing. It's not like I waded into a fist fight to protect some outnumbered minority members; it was just a few lines of text. And it's not like I lit a room afire with scorching oratory that made a permanent imprint on otherwise blackened souls.

But faced with the possibility of losing a job, I stayed true to myself and said what I believed, hell or high water; and my example had turned one head, made one man humbly relent. And I haven't shut up since. One at a time baby, one at a time.

But I never did another client dinner. I didn't want to make it a quest; my life is complicated enough.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You actually made a difference, if just for a moment.