Back in the early 2010s, I had a job in downtown Roanoke. It was a job where I had to deal with multiple people who treated me like an emotional support animal and by the end of each day I felt like the modern day equivalent of the mythological sin-eater, but on the other hand, I also made no money.
One of the things about working in downtown Roanoke at that time was that there were a large number of panhandlers. I have no issue with panhandlers— pretty much all of my issues are with the system that puts them out on the streets — but it could be difficult at times. It’s easy to have sympathy for panhandlers when you never encounter them, but when you’re accosted multiple times throughout the day — sometimes aggressively — while you’re just trying to do your job that pays you in acorns and bits of string, it’s easy for that sympathy to dry up.
There was one panhandler named Al who hung around the block where I worked. Al was a solid guy. He would ask you for money, but he was never aggressive about it, and I had a few good conversations with him over the years. I never had much money on me, but I’d usually give him whatever change I had in my pocket. He probably went and spent it on booze, but that’s likely what I was going to do with it anyway, so it all came out in the wash.
One day, I was leaving work when I saw Al walking up the street talking to a younger guy. When we crossed paths, I nodded to Al. The younger guy stopped me and asked me if I could give him some money.
“Yeah, I might have a little,” I said. I reached into my back pocket and scooped out my change; it was less than a dollar, but there were at least two quarters in there. That was enough to buy half a dozen eggs once upon a time. I dropped the coins in his open palm.
He looked at the change and slipped it in his pocket.
“Man, that’s it?” he said. “You haven’t got a ten or a twenty?”
I almost laughed. “I don’t have that kind of money to give away,” I said. “I make peanuts.”
His face folded into a scowl.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were a racist,” he said.
I felt like I’d been slapped across the face. I’d never in my life been called a racist before. I didn’t even know what to say. Al, meanwhile, seemed to be studying his own shoes.
While I was walking away, the young man yelled to everyone passing by that I was a huge racist, probably on my way to the next Klan rally. I got in my car and drove home.
The incident stewed in my mind for several days. At first I only felt hurt, but it quickly curdled into anger. That emotion was at the forefront when I bumped into Al less than a week later. He was alone this time.
“Al,” I said, “what’s up with that young guy you were hanging out with this week?”
Al shook his head. “Man, I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s my nephew. He’s in town for a couple of weeks. He’s an angry young man, he’s been through some stuff.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Well, tell him he ticked me right off.” (Note: I did not say ticked.) “I barely have twenty bucks to spend on myself, much less some dude I’ve never met before.”
“I know, I know,” Al said. “That was out of line. I’ll talk to him.”
A couple of days later, I was leaving work when I saw Al and the young man walking up the street. The young man made a beeline for me. I braced myself for whatever was coming, but it wasn’t what I expected.
“Hey man,” he said, “I’m really sorry I called you a racist. Al told me you were upset. I didn’t mean that, I’ve just been having a hard time.”
“We’re cool,” I said. “Things are tough all over.”
I stuck out my hand; he took it and drew me in. I clapped him on the back and told him to hang in there.
I don’t recall ever seeing the young man again, and I haven’t seen Al in years. Wherever they are now, I hope they’re hanging in.
I tell this story for the following reason:
I’m not perfect; in fact, my inner monologue reminds me of this every few minutes. I have enough personal flaws to fill a warehouse.
However, the above story is the first and, to date, last time I have ever been called a racist, and the dude apologized to me for it.
So whenever I hear somebody claim that “you can’t say anything anymore without being labeled a racist,” I can’t help but wonder what exactly they’re saying.