“When all else fails, I at least do a pretty good job of blending in. Thing is, when you blend in people will tell you anything.”
“That’s debatable,” I thought. I doubted that Dad would blend in very well anywhere, but he was right that people definitely are willing to tell perfect strangers anything. Dad had some strange experiences during one of his life’s low points, and as an amateur author he’d been revisiting some of the seedier establishments he frequented in a life he’d outgrown long ago. I looked around the main lobby of the VA Medical Center and thought some of Vets have probably had some pretty intense and crazy experiences, wilder than anyone’s imagination. Blending in is relative to the context.
I, on the other hand, have never blended in with much. It is pretty normal for perfect strangers to stop me to ask questions or share their thoughts any time and any place.
I kissed Dad goodbye and watched as he boarded the shuttle home. I walked back into the lobby to wait for my sister to meet me on her lunch break. As I neared the main elevators a volunteer gestured in my direction. I looked around to see who he might be signaling behind me in the busy lobby, but there was no one there. He gestured again. I took one more step forward and looked around again, wishing for an opportunity, just once, to go about my business without having to make a new acquaintance, but that would not be today. We had made eye contact earlier and smiled, but you do that with everyone at the VA. It is just that kind of place. The Vet gestured one more time, communicating with certainty that I should come closer to talk.
“You remind me of my mother.” I was certain I did not hear him correctly and asked the man to repeat himself.
“I said you remind me of my mother.” Okay, anything is possible, and I suppose a worthy reason to stop a perfect stranger young enough to be your granddaughter. “You dress like when the women dressed feminine.”
Suddenly I was not sure where this conversation was going, or whether I wanted to be a part of it. Too late.
“Where did you get your clothes? You just look so beautiful.” I was relieved he just wanted to talk about my clothes. I explained that some were made by hand, some I got second hand, some came from specialty boutiques, and some from the generic stores. All of them were thrifty. “Oh I was hoping you would say you made them! My mother used to wear clothes like this. And everything is so beautiful and looks so nice together. It used to be everyone dressed like this, and wore nice hats like this too.” He explained that in photos the hats were very elaborate, but that they had no crown, they were just for the show of the brim with the feathers, beads, and other adornments.
We talked a few more minutes. The man shared that he had been a high school teacher but retired a few years previously.
“I just got where I couldn’t stand it. Those girls would dress with almost no clothes on. Shorts with almost no legs at all. Tops so low they swing open.” He complained to the administrators, but there was no dress code and students were allowed to express themselves completely. “There are not very many women these days you would want to bring home to your parents.” The conversation was heading where I initially feared it would, and I had no control over it.
“It’s just my style. I don’t know where I learned it,” I tried to change the perspective a bit. “I think it is really about being comfortable with your own body, and I think there is something to be said for that, however you express it.” It is a really positive change that young women are more comfortable with their bodies than when I was young, though I would prefer not to know what kind or what color of underwear other people wear. My mind searched for an escape clause so I could avoid the nuances of the argument with my new friend.
“Oh and these black boys touching these white girls, I just couldn’t deal with that.” The conversation had leaped to whole new level of discomfort that left me feeling unprepared.
I collected my thoughts, pondering what to say. This man was well over 80 years old. I have no idea when or how long he served, or the state of military integration when he did. Certainly the Portland VA is integrated, both its staff and patients, though in a very white town that might not be very apparent. I wondered what the man thought of the health care providers and senior administrators who represent people of color in positions of power. They must certainly nod and smile at this volunteer every day. My new friend had retired from teaching and was no longer in schools influencing young people, but he brings his viewpoint into his work with other Vets and their families. As long as he volunteers at the VA I would see him again, and if I did not say something, even if I could not influence his thinking he might think I condoned his perspective.
I paused too long and he started again.
“See that woman over there, she dresses feminine. It’s a short skirt, but not too short. She looks nice.” While I dodged a bullet standing there dumbfounded I also committed a breech of ethics. When my grandmother used to say things that were inappropriate and racially charged I only ever made a gentle effort at contradicting her. She never left the house, only spoke to those who came in to see her, and she did not vote, though that is a different issue. I had years to practice a response to an older adult whose experiences were so different from my own, but I never came up with anything that could be heard. Still, I always found something respectful to say in an attempt to show her a different perspective. Standing in the VA with my new friend I could not even muster inadequate words in a timely fashion.
“Oh its just a style,” I repeated, relieved at the change in conversation and appalled at my inability to respond.
“Well I’d better get back to work before they wonder where I am. Nice talking with you.”
I missed the opportunity to make a difference. Standing firm for what is right is the responsibility that goes along with failing to blend in with a crowd. People want to stop you, and they will tell you anything. When they do it is my duty to be respectfully engaged. Often, as it did that day, these uncomfortable interruptions present an opportunity to share a more just perspective on the world. Moving so quickly from misogyny to racism in a single breath was more than I could figure out how to dismantle in a split second. Clearly I had this man’s attention, so there was some possibility he would have heard me, if only I had been able to ignore the growing awkwardness and say anything.