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Hiding in Plain Sight the Whole Time
I saw Green Book a few nights ago, and the scene where the car breaks down and Dr. Shirley notices the sharecroppers staring at him because he has a white chauffeur really struck me, especially because the scene was set in Kentucky.
I lived in Berea, Kentucky, for a while back in 1996. Berea as an older place located on the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a beautiful place with a long history.
The best thing about being in Kentucky that year was watching the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Rick Pitino had built a monster college basketball program at UK. The Wildcats won the NCAA Basketball Championship that year, and it was awesome to be there and watch the locals get so pumped about their team. That area of the country doesn’t have any professional sports franchises unless you count the teams about an hour north in Cincinnati, so the UK Wildcats men’s basketball team pretty much has a monopoly on the sports scene.
While I was there I stayed in housing that was run by the Christian Appalachian Project. I was working for a non-profit group at the time, and the office space we rented was located in an old roadside hotel owned and operated by CAP. It wasn’t a dump or run down, but it was an older building. The place had been converted into a retirement home with apartments on the lower level. I was able to live in one of the apartments in exchange for doing a few hours of volunteer work each week. The work was easy, involving cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, playing cribbage, and sitting with the residents talking and watching TV.
I had a great aunt who taught me how to play cribbage as a kid, so I immediately endeared myself to the group that played every night. Since I grew up around a bunch of women who were in the ’70s-’80s when I was a kid I had no problem taking a seat and playing for a couple hours. All of the people who lived there were really nice, which made the arrangement an easy one to live with while I was there.
There was an old guy named George who was a former pro boxer, and he had some great stories to tell. Berea was in a dry county, but he somehow always had a bottle of bourbon in his room. He rolled his own smokes, and since I knew how to roll a joint we’d sit there and roll up a few while sipping on bourbon and I’d listen to his stories. I wish I wrote them down because I don’t remember any of them, but I do remember he was a really interesting guy.
There was another guy my age living in one of the apartments while I was there. He was an EMT who was taking college classes in Richmond just up the road. I think his name was Tom. He worked long shifts and was a full-time student which meant he wasn’t around much, but when he was he had the same arrangement with CAP I did, so there were times we were both doing our volunteer hours together.
One day not long after I got there Tom was heading out to do his Meal on Wheels work for the retirement home. There were people around Berea who didn’t need to live at the retirement home, but they did need to have meals delivered to their homes because a lot of them were shut-ins. There were a few people who also had basic medications delivered, such as insulin. He asked me if I wanted to help him out and I figured sure, why not.
This was one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever done in my life.
You may think you know what poverty is because you’ve seen homeless people panhandling on street corners in a city. I certainly thought I knew what poverty was and what it looked like. I was completely wrong. I had no idea how ugly, depressing, and horrible poverty can be until I went up into the Appalachian foothills.
Every house we went to was way off the beaten pathway down some random dirt road. For most of the people we delivered food to it’s not really accurate to call what they were living in a house. Old barns, shipping containers, buses, an airplane fuselage, and even stacks of tires with corrugated steel tied to them to make walls and roofs were the kind of structure many of these people called their home. There were zero amenities at the places. Running water, electricity, or HVAC were non-existent. A few had Franklin stoves, but barrels cut in half were used as a fireplace in a few homes.
And the smell. My god, the smell in each of these homes was unbearable. But I kept it together because I didn’t want to offend anybody. These people had nothing, and I’m sure the last thing they needed to see was some fucking Yankee gagging while dropping off their food.
There was one particular house Tom warned me about because he was called to the place several times as an EMT responding to gunshot wounds. The family that lived there was straight out of the movie ‘Deliverance’, and they would get all jacked on booze and meth and then start arguing, which eventually led to guns out and bullets flying. Tom told me one time he showed up and he and the cops waited until the gunfire stopped before they went up to see who’d been shot. These people were the most fucked up group of degenerates I’ve ever met. They were never happy to see us, they just wanted to know what we had for them. I never thought much of it because if I lived there I wouldn’t be very happy to see anybody either.
But there was something else I saw in just about every other interaction, and that was gratitude. These people, most of them elderly, were so happy to see us. Many of them lived alone, so when we showed up they were simply overwhelmed at the sight of another person. There were tears a lot of the time, but I got the sense they were tears of joy because they were so happy to see they weren’t forgotten.
The following week after the first time I went Tom asked me if I wanted to go again. I really didn’t want to go, but I did. It became something I did with him every week, and in hindsight, I’m so glad I kept going with him. The experienced softened me in a way I didn’t realize at the time. I’ve viewed hardship in my life and the lives of those around me in a completely different way as a result of that experience. I really felt like I was doing something good by giving my time to these people and helping them. I was volunteering at the retirement home and helping out with the Meals on Wheels program and it was good for my soul.
It was probably about two months later and I was out with Tom again doing the Meals on Wheels thing. It was raining, so everywhere we went was a muddy mess. The van we drove wasn’t exactly designed for driving on muddy paths, so it was slow going most of the night. We pulled up to a run-down single-wide I’d never been to before, grabbed the delivery, and went up and knocked on the door. A hunched over elderly black woman answered the door. She didn’t really say much other than to put the stuff on the floor inside her door as I remember. She said thank you and we left, it was a simple drop off like a lot of them were.
Now, this next part is something I’ve talked to Joe about because I’m not exactly certain how or if I should write what happened and what was said. There are certain words that have become wrapped in so many feelings it’s difficult to use them, even if in an instance like this it’s used simply to recall something that was said. The thing is, it’s a powerful word that needs to be used in order to understand how shocking it is to have is associated with the volunteer work I was doing. Not using this word sterilizes what was said, and I think there’s value in recalling everything that was said.
So, here goes.
When we got back into the van to leave after dropping off the food for the woman Tom turned around to back up the van and said “God damn, I hate delivering to fucking n*ggers”, and I was immediately deflated. I absolutely couldn’t believe what I just heard from a guy who for a few months I had volunteered with for dozens of hours.
How could this guy think this way?
How can you do some much good for people but then be so hateful to someone based on the color of their skin?
I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. For the rest of the night, I didn’t really know what to say, which if you know me is something that never happens. We finished up the deliveries, went home, and I just went to bed for the night.
Over the next few days what Tom said kept bouncing around inside my head. I also started to realize the black woman we delivered the food to was the only black person I had seen since I’d arrived in Berea, which obviously suddenly seemed odd.
It was a few days later and I was hanging out with George rolling up some Drums and sipping some Jim Beam and I asked him how come I never see any black people in the retirement home. Now, remember, George was an older guy in his 90s, so there’s an expectation of racism in a white guy from Kentucky born in the early 1900s, and he said exactly what I would’ve guessed. His response was “They don’t let n*ggers live here!”, which again hit me in the gut a bit because these were people I had come to consider my friends.
I was probably incredibly naive not to think I would hear people talk this way in Kentucky, but everybody I knew was connected to a Christian organization that did great things, and I had been a volunteer involved in helping a lot of people in the name of that organization. I didn’t expect racism from these people who claimed to be Christians. I was wrong.
It was this experience that flashed through my head as I watched the sharecroppers in ‘Green Book’ stare in amazement as they witnessed a white chauffeur driving around a black man. I would imagine based on the way these ‘Christians’ behaved in front of me in the mid-1990s that these same people said and did some hateful shit back in the early 1960s.
I was in Berea for a total of six months, and while I was there I did a lot of volunteering, raised a ton of money for the non-profit I was working for, lived through a tornado that cut a path of destruction through the center of town, experienced what it’s like when a local team wins a national championship.
I also discovered that so many of the people around me while I was there harbored a sense of racism that was shocking, especially since I didn’t see it right away.
Hearing Tom say what he said in the van that night I’m sure I looked a bit like those sharecroppers in ‘Green Book’. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I'm just a guy doing the best I can with the tools at my disposal.
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