It was late spring 1988. I was a senior in high school, and I happened to be home alone that evening, I forget why. Margaret had recently aquired her first boyfriend, and he happened to come by looking for her. He was sixteen and she was fourteen, but he seemed like a nice guy and their relationship wasn't serious by any stretch of the imagination.
It was a warm night, and after I'd told him Margaret was not home we just sort of slipped into conversation accidentally, with him standing on the porch and me standing in the open doorway. I suppose I should have invited him in to chat at some point, but it was such a natural, accidental conversation that I hadn't realized we were having it until we were well into it, and suggesting a change of venue would have interupted the flow. As it happened, the conversation we hadn't meant to have ended abruptly about five minutes later when the phone rang and the young man chose to say goodbye rather than wait and continue after I'd answered it.
The phone call happened to be from the neighbors across the street. They wanted to know if that boy was bothering me and offered to call the police. I was a bit flummoxed by this one. OK, sure, I was home alone and he was male, but if the neighbors had seen us talking they should have been able to read the body language... It wasn't like he had even been trying to get in. Assuming that they were worried about some sort of potential sexual assault I made a lame joke about knowing where Dad kept the shotgun, trying to signal that I could take care of myself, thanks all the same. They took me seriously, warning that while that was a good idea it would just get me in trouble. Um, yeah. I was further flustered now because, even in the context of my joke, I would never in a million years shoot anyone unless it was a life or death situation. Then my neighbors made some further comment, I forget exactly what it was, that shocked me but finally cleared up exactly why they had bothered to pick up the phone in the first place.
You see, the young man in question was black.
I suppose I should not have been shocked. Its just that I had been living under the false belief that racism was something that happened elsewhere. Its not something that was supposed to call you on the phone offering to call the police on the nice young man you were chatting with. I suppose if I'd thought about it I would have realized that the fact that all the black people in the school district lived in one area on the other side of the expressway should have signalled a higher level or racism in the community than I had been assuming. I just didn't expect anyone I knew to be a racist, at least not in such a blatent way. I was savvy enough to realize that there was a lot of subconcious racism going on. I also realized at that point that I was far from immune to these subconcious biases, and I was trying to avoid them. But blatent use of the N word? Calling the police over a quiet conversation? I was shocked.
There is an amusing epilogue to the who incident. The young man in question did not date Margaret for very long. This is unsurprising, given that less than a year later he was kicked out of his house for being gay. When that happened my parents took him in and he lived in the downstairs for a long time. Long enough that he started calling my mother "Mom", and was sort of adopted into the family. The racist neighbors were livid and haven't spoken to my parents since. In fact, when a black woman moved in across the other street (my childhood home is on a corner), the racist neighbors blamed it on my parents, telling all the other neighbors that my parents bring black people into the neighborhood. Well, I suppose if they need someone to blame my parents can take the credit.
The not so amusing epilogue is that we haven't seen the young man of this story for a while. He used to stop by every Christmas, at least, but hasn't for a number of year. I really hope he's OK.