Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Welfare state of mind

A strange encounter today. I was on my way back from the local 7/11, heading home at the end of the day. As I am walking back, my eyes are drawn to a display at an "antiques and junk" shop. It is an old map, displayed as an old treasure. I check it out and I hear a voice calling "Do you have a child?" I'm quite surprised at the question, so I turned around with a puzzled air on my face. "What did you ask?" It is an old black man, with a large white beard and hair. His eyes are piercing but his smile is engaging. I smile and ask him to repeat the question. Apparently I'm to be the judge in a dispute: one of the statues on display is of a cherubim with a puffed face and sagging stomach. The question is "how old is the person being presented by this statue?" One guy is saying 5 or 6, the old man is suggesting about 1 or 2 years old. I favor an even older age. No self-respecting toddler has a sagging stomach. The expression on the face is that of an adult. We are soon just talking. I am ready to head home but I want to know how much is the map. "$85" is the answer. That's just a no starter. So I laugh and tells him "No. That's ok!". For some reason he does not like my way to refuse his offer. "Do you want to Jew me down?" he asks. "To what??" I am asking, quite stunned. "To Jew me down. Bargain down. Jews are stingy so that's why..." I didn't know this expression and I am totally shocked. It's so offensive, one does not have to be Jewish to feel the hate behind it.
I balk and immediately get the question "Are you Jewish?" The question adds to the offense. As if only that could explain my reaction, as if not every one hearing it would have balked. As if one has to be black to be offended by racism or a woman to be aware of chauvinism.
I'd like to reason the old man but I feel he won't understand. I ask questions to try to understand him, his mind set that made him so insensitive. He is telling me about one of his white friend who is the only one allowed to call him "Nigger". I don't understand his point, what's the big deal about letting a friend calling him whatever he likes? Now I am thinking of the young man I saw a couple of months ago, the one with a tattoo saying "NIGGA", maybe this old man could explain why someone would tattoo this on his skin? Maybe he has the answer I could not find that day? I tell him the story and ask if he has any explanations for it. He is clearly taken aback and says "Some young kids think that 20 of the smarter crackers are not worth the dummest of the brothers". "Crackers?" "Yes, crackers. White guys." I pause. Still not completely sure of what he is saying. Is this some sort of turning a bad word into some pride banner. Understandable but it is still being defined by the other. Not by yourself, on your own terms. This is still losing.
I don't say any of this and nod. The old man is becoming restless. "I've given you information and you have not given me anything!" he says. I smile. "That's true, I've learned a lot from you, you haven't learned anything from me". He is clearly annoyed now. "There is a word for this, you know. It's called "welfare state of mind". You're asking people to give you but you're not giving anything back." I smile. "Fair enough." A woman is calling him to hurry and close the store. She looks at me and says "He has learned something from you alright" she smirks "he has learned that you won't spent no money". I am a bit annoyed at her tone when I answer "Not completely correct. He has learned that I won't spent $85 on a cheap old map". The conversation is over. The old man invites me to come back to talk some more. "Come back in the morning!" the woman adds, "so you'll have the whole day to talk!". I leave not sure about all what was said and all what was left unsaid.


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