A man came around the corner pushing his things in a Safeway shopping cart. He saw me sitting a few feet away, outside Bauhaus, and stopped. The man left his cart on the corner, took half a step toward me, and asked a question – the beginning of an ethnic joke. “What do you call a white man surrounded by a bunch of Indians?” He was Indian.
I went along with it. “What?”
He misunderstood, thought I hadn’t heard. He moved in a little closer and hesitated before sitting down next to me and repeating the question. “What do you call a white man surrounded by a bunch of Indians?” He had a bloody scratch on the side of his nose, an infection on his lower lip, and his movements were slow and deliberate.
“I don’t know. What do you call him?” I clarified.
He answered, “Bartender,” then fell silent, waiting for me to laugh. I smiled weakly and nodded to acknowledge the punchline.
He asked for fifty cents and I said I didn’t have any change. He told me his name and his tribe and I shook his hand. He told me he was from Wyoming and asked where I was from; I pointed behind me, “Eastern Washington.” He asked if I had a dollar; I said no and failed to offer to get him coffee or a muffin. He got up with more difficulty than I would have expected – getting onto his feet first, then straightening his posture carefully.
“Have a good day.” He said this the same way he’d said everything else – flat, unemotional, and honest.
“Good luck,” I answered. Then I went back to my reading – and my loafing.
I imagine that usually, when faced with the same racially charged circumstances, people would’ve ignored him and just waited for him to leave. That’s pretty much what I did, I avoided my discomfort and embarrassment by waiting a little longer for him to leave.