We need a new dishwasher. Fluvio places an ad in the paper. We’re soon inundated with applicants.
Throughout the morning an onslaught of applicants trudge through the front door. They’re all Hispanic men. Hailing from places like Ecuador, El Salvador, and Mexico – eager to take the jobs Anglos turn their noses up at.
Most of the applicants don’t speak English. That’s a problem filling out the paperwork. My Spanish is terrible. That’s a shame since I’ve worked around Spanish speakers for several years. I should’ve learned. I ask Julia, one of our bi-lingual busgirls, to help me fill out the applications. It’s time consuming. I feel bad. Only one of these guys are going to get the job.
By noon the men stop coming. I’ve got a stack of applications. Flipping through them I notice most of the guy’s left only phone numbers. No addresses. Worried about La Migra I guess.
As I shuffle through the paperwork the door chimes. I look up. A young Hispanic looking guy is standing in the vestibule. Surly faced, pants hanging off his hips, he looks about twenty years old.
“Can I help you?” I ask.
“Can I help you?” I repeat.
The young man stares at me. He says nothing. Maybe he doesn’t speak English.
“Are you here about the dishwasher position?” I ask.
The kid looks at me angrily.
“What did you say?” he hisses.
“I was wondering if you were here about the job,” I ask.
“That’s fucked up man. Fucked up,” the kid mutters angrily.
Now I’m getting aggravated. Why’s this kid pissed off? Not a good way to look for a job.
“Listen, I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me…….” I start to say when the door opens.
In walk the kid’s parents. The mother’s white. The father’s black. This kid isn’t Hispanic.
“Hey Dad this cracker thinks I’m here for a job!” the young man shouts.
“What?” the father says surprised.
Looking at me the kid barks, “You thought because I’m black I’m here to get a job – not to eat. Didn’t you?
I want to say “But I thought you were Hispanic” but think the better of it.
The father turns to me. Gulp.
“Sir, we’re looking for a new dishwasher and I’ve been talking to applicants all day….,”
“You’re an asshole,” the kid sneers.
“That’s enough William,” the father says sternly.
I feel my face getting red. “I apologize for my assumption sir,” I say contritely.
“Well I don’t accept your apology,” William pouts.
The mother puts two and two together. “He didn’t mean anything by it William,” she says.
“An honest mistake sir,” I entreat.
We’re all quiet for a moment. I pray for the earth to swallow me up.
“Well, I’m hungry. A table for three please,” the father says finally.
I grab some menus. “Right this way sir,”
I’d better not wait on this table. I get one of the other waiters to cover it. When I see Fluvio I explain what happened.
“Good move,” he says when I finish.
“I have no excuse. I screwed up.”
‘That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”
Fluvio sighs and goes to the table to make nice nice. The kid’s still angry. The parents say they understand. They order their lunch.
The kid doesn’t miss an opportunity to glare at me. I hide behind the hostess stand.
I’m embarrassed. I think I made an honest mistake. Fifty Spanish guys came looking for jobs this morning. The kid, who turns out to be a BIG fifteen year old, looked like all the other guys searching for work. How was I to know he was black? Or is he white?
Oh man my head hurts.
“I’m not a racist. I’m not a racist,” I chant to myself, trying to reassure myself that my mind filled in the blanks with the information I had on hand. I made a false assumption. That’s all
I’m not a cracker.
Or am I?
When I was in the seminary I heard a story, maybe it’s apocryphal, about a white nun who worked in the inner city for forty years. Most of the people she ministered to were black. She was considered a saint.
She’s driving to work one day when some black guys jump in front of her car screaming at her to stop.
What does the nun do? She thinks they’re carjackers. She guns the engine trying to get away.
And ends up busting up her car in gigantic pothole.
The black guys waving her down weren’t trying to carjack her.
They were trying to save her.
The men pull the nun out of the car. She goes to the hospital. Luckily, her injuries aren’t serious.
The nun is shaken up and not by the accident. She’s shaken by the knowledge if those guys had been white she would have stopped the car. Forty years of service in the black community and she still had prejudice in her heart. It was an eye opening experience.
If I’m honest with myself – that’s exactly what happened with this kid.
I thought because he looked Hispanic he was looking for work – not lunch. So what if a hundred Hispanic guys came looking for a job? I was wrong. It was an assumption wrapped within a stereotype.
The kid? Well he’s a teenager. Teenagers are quick to anger and keen to expose hypocrisy. He got confused because he thought I was making an assumption based on his racial background
Right idea kid. Wrong ethnicity.
I take a deep breath. Despite my education and experience, my good intentions and egalitarian ideals – I struggle with race and ethnicty like everyone else.
I’m not perfect. Far from it.
The trio finishes their lunch. The kid walks stonily past me. The father and mother follow him.
“I’m sorry for what happened earlier,” I say.
The father graciously offers his hand. I take it.
“We all make mistakes,” he intones solemnly.
“Thank you sir,” I say appreciatively.
The mother smiles at me and they go outside. The father says a few words to his son. The kid heads back inside.
“I’m sorry I called you an asshole,” he says.
“Maybe I deserved it,” I reply.
The kid smiles.
“Maybe you did.”
“Good day sir,” I say.
I watch the family walk down the street. I shake my head. What a day.
The lunch shift ends. Ernesto makes us something to eat. I sit down with my compadres and dig in. I look around the table. These people have been like my family for five years.
And I’m still a gringo cracker.
But I’m trying.
The staff eats their lunch.
I eat my crow.