Or – an alternate title – “Boston, The Racial Valhalla I Never Knew”
My wife and I went on a trip to New England, where I grew up, to visit my parents. It was pleasant in many prototypically New England ways; the leaves were turning and the angle of the sun painted the world in that most flattering light. Both of my parents were well enough considering recent traumas, and we were able to enjoy one another’s company. The countryside smelled wonderful. The temperature was invigorating. The food I remember fondly didn’t seek its revenge on me. We were also miraculously between a local team’s bout for some championship-or-another and hence didn’t have to deal with overdone sports fanfare endemic to the region, encroaching onto our mental breathing room. The mood in the city, Boston, was at its most vibrant and optimistic, doing it’s best to ignore the specter of gloom – in the form of winter – on the near horizon.
It was almost enough to reframe my mostly melancholic remembrances of the place. But not quite.
Allow me to cop to my uncool and simplistic bias, which is that I mostly think of New England as an inbred backwater. A region and culture obsessed with petty, small-minded ritual and the outward appearance of propriety. It’s a place that basks in self-congratulatory pride rooted in a history that is, in most cases, hardly commendable. Here’s the backhanded compliment; except when that history is compared to that of most everywhere else in America.
I realize this idea is mostly bullshit, I’m just sour from growing up there, and further that it’s not fair to paint a place as large as a city or a state so unflatteringly. Better, I was able to tamp that bias down long enough to enjoy my time with the people I love and appreciate some of the good things about the place. Things like the changing foliage and the antique buildings, the old neighborhoods and quaint harbors. It ended up being really quite a pleasant trip.
On one of these lovely autumn days my wife, father, stepmother and I had lunch at a diner-style luncheonette in a town called Milton on the outskirts of Dorchester. Dorchester is a transitioning, formerly working class neighborhood on the south side of Boston. Milton is a wealthier and more suburban area than Dorchester. And here comes the surprise, when we walked in to this particular restaurant we were met with a multi-cultural crowd, more diverse than anything I’d seen in years, anywhere outside of New York City.
The room was a regular post racial rainbow, straight out of “Free to be you and me.”
There was a table full of West Indian men and women – complete with a dude with a deep voice reminiscent of James Earl Jones – they spoke seriously amongst one another, occasionally loudly, towards the back. A Caucasian father and his little daughter took up the two-top next to us. There was an Asian couple two tables over, some Indian people ate nearby, a white policeman sat alone reading his phone, a table full of large, young black men and their wives or girlfriends ate pancakes, a Latino waitress served us with a genuine smile. It felt like a post-racial Valhalla. In Boston no less!
It wasn’t just that all these different races were there at the same restaurant together that was so interesting. While it was certainly cool and unexpected, it was the prevailing joyous mood that I found truly unusual. The food at the place was good. It was a beautiful day. There was an air of contentment, of good humor prevailing in the room. That was what felt different.
I live in Los Angeles. I don’t run into, never mind interact with, many black people during my typical day. That number improves when it comes to Latinos but is by no means large. Which makes me sad, well not sad really, more like regretful of what isn’t but could have been. I want to have the experience of interacting with people from other cultures and perspectives. I also don’t want it to feel exceptional when I do get to interact with people from another race or background.
I was conscience-stricken by the fact that I hadn’t had that experience in my chosen home of LA, but in Boston, a town I’d written off – long ago – as irredeemably racist. Years ago I came to California partly because of my impression that it had a less racist legacy to overcome – I’ve since come to understand that impression was largely incorrect, but still…
None of this is to say that eating peaceably in a restaurant amongst people of various ethnicities proves society has moved past anything. No. The experience simply whetted my appetite for what could be. That an unexceptional occurrence had become, quietly and while I wasn’t paying attention, exceptional. It reminded me of the experiences I deny myself when I operate in my often unexamined and self-imposed racial silo. It’s not easy to break out of that silo. I do what I can, when I can, particularly when it’s easy. But then it’s rarely easy. I wish it were otherwise.
What an unsatisfying conclusion to a satisfying experience. An experience that should be humdrum and everyday but that has somehow become exceptional. I don’t think this was always so… Has the world changed or was it me? Chances are, as with most things, it’s a bit of both.