I’m going to write about an incident that has been bothering me, and I’m not going to extrapolate on it, because I don’t really have anything profound to say. This scenario has replayed in my mind hundreds of times since it transpired last night.
My mom flew in to Dallas to help me get settled in, or to keep tabs on her progeny, or to roam around in a state where gun control is not so much “libertarian” as it is “negligent”–whatever it is moms do. Being the shining exemplar of perfect daughters everywhere, I wanted to give her a proper introduction to the Lone Star State, despite the fact that I barely know my way around because I’ve spent the past month and a half working up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to figure out how to preach chemistry to recalcitrant teenagers. The one place I knew would be a sure bet was the Stockyards, a historic downtown area that features honky tonks, rodeos, cattle drives, and, most importantly, men in tight jeans and cowboy hats.
After browsing souvenir shops, petting horses, and visiting Willie Nelson’s star on the Stockyards Country Music Walk of Fame, my mom and I sat down at a steak house. Our waiter was super cute and we immediately struck up a repartee because he was impressed that I was drinking bourbon. (Why this preference is somehow “impressive” and not the status quo for all living Americans starting from its siphoning from the umbilical cord is beyond me.) We volleyed back and forth for a while; I found out that his parents were teachers and shared with him that I am training to teach science in a high-needs school. Turned out he was working two jobs to pay for school. Slowly but surely, the cute waiter was checking off all the boxes on the proverbial “list.” In one exchange, he tried to trick me into ordering the calf testicles, but I, ever so wise, caught onto his scheme… and ordered them anyway.
Then, my mom solicited his advice in apartment hunting. He recommended that we look into buying, rather than leasing, due to the nature of the market right now. I mused that owning a house would be all well and good, except for one small issue: I don’t mow lawns.
To which my would-be Lothario replied, “That’s why we have Mexicans.”
I was taken aback, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt; after all, we had established some level of familiarity, and my friends and I make off-color jokes to each other all the time with the understanding that none of us actually believes that stereotypes are credible, and no one actually thinks that Carlos Mencia is funny.
I tried to diffuse the comment by suggesting that maybe one of my students would want to make some extra cash, at which point the waiter impersonated my kids in a Hispanic accent and insinuated that they could mow my lawn for a better grade.
I think he could tell that my mom and I were growing uncomfortable, because he then back-pedaled, saying, “I’m not even racist.” As evidence for this assertion, he recounted a story about a black woman he encountered at the social security office who went up to the window and demanded her money. “Oh, wow,” said my mom, and I think he interpreted that as shock at the woman’s actions, rather than his story, and said, “What’s worse is that these people are reproducing.” Then he looked at me and said, “They’re having some of your kids.”
I couldn’t even register my offense, because he quickly went on to say that the social security officer behind the counter thanked him for being white. I asked him if he was serious. He confirmed that he was being serious, noting that people are open about their prejudices in Texas. He cited the presence of the Klan somewhere nearby, and his tone suggested disgust (at the Klan), which led me to question whether he was just joking about everything else. The whole communication was very confusing because, on top of being very sarcastic, he was intermittently serving other tables, so it was difficult for me to pick up on conversational cues.
Then he said, “Like, people are really open about the whole Gay thing. Here, you’re either against ’em, and you’re a good, conservative Christian, or you’re for ’em, and you’re a liberal who’s going to burn in hell.”
That’s when my mother decided it would be a good time to recount a tale about how a playmate told me that I was going to hell when I was three. I barely prevented my mother from outing us as Jewish.
I told him as a teacher it was my responsibility to make sure that the gay children in my class had a comfortable environment in which to learn. He told me that my gay kids would probably get beat up right in front of me. I said, “Not on my watch, they won’t,” and diverted the conversation to one about the achievement gap. He seemed compassionate toward my kids’ plight, so again I was inclined to reevaluate whether or not his comments had been in jest. We started talking about how sex education was inadequate in Texas and he told us some stories about how they made him sign a no-masturbation pact in the eighth grade (I’m assuming this is how some of my southern friends learned about sex, given their understanding of how condoms work). But then he commented, “Well, it’s better than the alternative–Obama wants us to fix it with abortion.”
Because yes, last time I checked, enumerated in the President’s job description, also known as the Constitution, is that he shall have the power to legislate sex education… via forced abortion. See for yourselves; it’s in Article II, Section WHY WOULD YOU SAY SOMETHING IGNORANT ABOUT A PHILOSOPHICALLY NUANCED, CULTURALLY SENSITIVE TOPIC TO PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW WHEN YOU ARE WORKING FOR TIPS?
By that point my stomach was churning and it was all I could do to push my food around on my plate. When the check came, I pretended to take it. Our waiter made a joke about how I would have to do dishes if I couldn’t afford the tab… and I would be in the company of my students.
I was so distraught over the whole incident that I ruined the night for my mom and we had to leave early. All I wanted to do when I got home was run to one of my roommates, who is gay, and beg him to tell me that people weren’t all like that, but no one was home. (Incidentally, they were all at a gay bar in Dallas.) Instead, I retired to bed, fuming, sad, and angry–at the waiter, yes, but also at myself for being such a coward. After all, I had just written about our imperative to stand up for what is right, and I could muster neither the coherence nor the courage to correct this random dude who insulted my friends and my kids.
He insulted my kids, who, even on the days when they decide to test my sanity as one would drop a glass bottle from a seven-story building, are such good kids. My kids, who have to confront obstacles my waiter never faced, who struggle every day to catch up to their peers with a dearth of resources and bad teachers and toxic home environments. My kids, who end up getting pregnant because the Texas legislators thought it would be a good idea to make hormonal adolescents sign no-masturbation pacts, while countless 16-year-olds halfway across the country from affluent families are getting designer educations and being pipelined into Harvard, by no choice or merit of their own. My kids, who end up repressing their attraction to members of the same sex, and who will have to relocate when their Texan employers fire them for being gay because Dan Savage lied to us and hate prevails, not because there are people clinging to a 4,000-year-old mythology to stave off their fear of death, but because people like me sit silently at dinner tables, wondering whether to give the benefit of the doubt.
And it is doubly distressing because he was cute, and funny, and it’s hard to find a good tour guide in this town. Though I have been plagued with healthy amounts of doubt, last night was the first time I seriously considered that I wasn’t going to make it here on my own.