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Jun 28, 2022
I think most of us would like to make the world a little better place. From time to time, I find myself asking if there’s more I might be doing. The challenges we face are many, and they feel so large and daunting. After all, how does one “defeat” racism, or “eliminate” poverty.
Then I remember Hank (name changed for privacy).
If you looked up the word ‘racist’ a 1940s dictionary and saw his picture, you’d probably think “Yep, that looks about right”. And yes, I know you can’t actually tell by looking.
The first time I met Hank, i was shopping at the welding supply shop where he worked. I was a new customer there -my usual place had just gone out of business. I was also still fairly new to welding and completely fascinated by all the cool welding “stuff”. Often, I’d walk around for 30 minutes or more looking at dozens of things of widely varying functions and prices, then end up buying the $5.00 flap disk I came for. From the way Hank’s chilly gaze followed me around the store, I’m sure he thought I was casing the joint.
Early in our getting to know one another, I was looking for a new welding mask, and asked him what he’d recommend. He warned me that if I bought the wrong one I’d get burned to a crisp. I took his "suggestion" to be some kind of barely veiled racial reference. I have no idea if it really was, but it felt like it at the time. Nonetheless, his welding shop was conveniently located and the on-hand stock was always pretty good, so I continued to shop there for about five years until I moved out of the area.
My first few months shopping there, Hank and I didn’t talk much. Then one day I heard him talking to another customer about weeding his garden. When I got to the register, I casually asked what kind of things he was growing. With some initial reservation he told me about his vegetables. I expressed some interest because - hey, who doesn’t like vegetables. Hank was soon absolutely effusive as he told me about the variety of vegetables and flowers he’d been cultivating.
Over the years Hank learned a little about this weird vegetarian artist, and I learned a little more than I wanted to about fishing lures. We both learned that being the dad of a teenage daughter is tough no matter your background. If this were a movie the camera would pan out through a window framing both our families joined around the Christmas table. Of course this isn’t a movie, and there were no real kumbaya moments. But within the space of that little welding supply store, suspicion and mistrust no longer dominated. It’s not world peace, but it’s still pretty good.
So what changed? Not much at first. Taken individually, the changes were imperceptible, but over time two men who seemingly had no common ground, discovered some. Now when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the expressions hatred that seems so prominent, I remember Hank. And I’m hopeful that each of us can actually make a difference in the world - not everywhere all at once, but maybe just one person at a time, one day at a time.
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