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1972


the white tower...

it's early 70's... and here betty and liz and i are in some white tower below 14th street on the east side of  new york city ordering a quick lunch before walking across the street to see a saturday matinee children's live show. 

we're at a table in the back and the chrome and white interior is populated with what must be a 'normal' cross-section of the widest diversity. there are two young students who have left their bicycles padlocked with a chain to the parking meter outside the window.

there's this guy sitting at the counter...hasn't shaved for a couple of days...got a top coat with frayed cuffs and a couple of buttons missing... he's ordering a second piece of apple pie alamode and you can see the waitress is beginning to suspect he's not able to even pay for the first one.

"Uh...just a minute", she says and walks over to the owner behind the cash register and whispers something. the both of them come over as the man in the topcoat lifts the last forkfull of his previous serving. "sir...", begins the owner. 

"yeah?", the man stops before putting the fork in his mouth.

"if you don't mind, i'd like you to pay for your first order before she brings you your second piece..." the customer lowers the fork. the owner is trying to walk the thin line between courteous and suspicious.

"...and what's wrong with ordering a second piece of pie? that's what business you're in, right? selling food, right? and i'm buying food, right?"

"do you have the money to pay for what you've already eaten?" the manager's voice raises slightly.

"you're asking me if i have money?", the customer is too quickly indignant. "Before i'm through eating? i don't see you asking anybody else here if they've got money to pay for their food?!"

Betty and I look at each other. Liz is oblivious to the drama taking place. But there is some other kind of signal this man is giving off...what is it?

"look," says the owner, "just show me you've got some money to pay for this food"

"money?", the man in the topcoat asks, "you want to see money?"

"i just want to know that you can pay for what you've ordered", repeats the owner. the waitress has got a grim set to her mouth. either way this argument turns out, she's kissed a tip goodbye.

"you want to see money...", the customer repeats and suddenly i realize why i get this feeling he's overacting. it's  been a setup! he's been deliberately leading these folks on. this has been calculated to generate suspicion so that he could 'make a statement' about his worth.

so. i am not surprised when he reaches in the oversize pocket of his topcoat and pulls out a wad of bills rolled around each other and as big in diameter as a can of beans. he throws a five dollar bill on the counter.

"there!", he says pushing himself off the stool. "you want more?!" he asks rhetorically. "there!", he says again throwing another five on the counter. "...and you can keep your pie!"

he shoves the wad back into his pocket, turns up his collar dramatically, and almost as though he's expecting applause, strides for the door.

the owner doesn't bat an eye, 'picks up one of the five dollar bills, and walks to the cash register. only by watching carefully do i see that his hand is trembling. the waitress is wiping some crumbs away (after pocketing the other five dollars i suppose).

we all pick strange ways to establish self worth, i comment to myself...but hey, then again, i figure...this is new york city.

gradually betty, liz and i and the other patrons return our attention to our own food.

but not for long.

in through the door has lurched a belligerent, foul-languaged, black man. the left sleeve of his checkered shirt is ripped at the shoulder seam, and he is ready to punch out anybody here. the level of conversation in the restaurant is gradually overcome by the shouting at the cash register. I look up.

"Get out!" the owner is shouting.

"Lay one hand on me and I'll trash this place" the slightly weaving black man with the glazed eyes growls back.

several customers hurriedly finish paying their bill and slip out the front door. several others move to tables nearer the rear.

i've got no idea what the argument is about; i can only feel the tension - the potential for violence - and like the other people in the diner, betty and liz and i are hoping that by ignoring it, the situation will remedy itself.

suddenly the owner reaches behind the counter and pulls out a broom handle. "Get out of here, I said", he repeats, waving the stick in the air.

"Yeah, c'mon...c'mon", the black man pulls his hands out of the coat and balls them into fists.

i get up from my chair in the rear of the restaurant. "where are you going?" asks betty startled by my move. "i've got to stop this", i say. "it's none of our business", she puts her hand on my arm. "i know", i reply as i walk to the front. i've absolutely no thought of the consequences. But I have this total conviction  that i'm the only one that can change the situation.

Like a boxer, the man revolves his arms slowly in front of him and shuffles backwards into an open area of the restaurant. As I reach the counter he is staring daggers at the owner who is telling the girl to watch the register for a minute.

"C'mon...", i murmur to the angry man with the clenched fists

"Huh?", he looks over at me, distracted for the moment.

I gently place my hand on his shoulder and motioning with my head to the front door say, "you don't want to get into this..."

amazingly, the man lowers his arms and with but the gentlest pressure on his shoulder proceeds me out the glass door.

"He shouldn'ta said that to me...", my new acquaintence mumbles as we reach the street and approach the trash basket on the corner.

"I know...", I reply, sensing his hurt and frustration, "but I'm sure he didn't mean it personally. He was probably just having a bad day."

"But he shouldn't talked to me that way...", he shook his head sadly. "It isn't right..."

"It isn't right. Sometimes people just have days like that, you know what I mean?", I advised. I could see that he was much calmer now and I placed my hand on his back reassuringly.

"Yeah...", the man's voice trailed off and though still obviously bothered, he straightened himself somewhat and turned his head to watch the traffic flow down 1st avenue. 

"You okay now?", I asked after a moment. 

"Yeah...", he said absently. "Yeah, I'm okay."

"Well...God bless you", I said and re-entered the restaurant.

(do you remember that part in the starwars film where alec guinness playing the role of obie kanobie says to the empire guards "these are not the men you are looking for...", waves his hands and for some inexplicable reason they are allowed to pass through the checkpoint? reality overwhelmed by the Force? years later when i see this scene, i cannot but help recall the smoothness with which i have been guided or have guided others through potentially dangerous situations by a calm certainty. there are many reports of refugees escaping detection and certain torture or death, bibles being allowed into political prisons or across country's borders all under this same umbrella of providence.) 

"What did you say to him?", Betty asks as I return to the table.

"I just kept telling him that everything was alright and  that it wasn't his fault and that he didn't really want to start anything", I answered in what felt like somebody else's voice.

"And that's all?!", asked Betty surprised.

"That's all", I replied, sitting down to finish my pie alamode.

and now, sitting in a motel room some twenty years later, i look at the words that reveal this little  experience and think about it's contrast to the 'peacemakers' that are portrayed on television and in the movies. 'where's the bravery here'? my carnal nature inquires. 'big deal' adventure, eh? an excerpt from an Indiana Jones movie looms bigger than life in my memory and i am embarrassed by the modesty of this 'saving action'. gads...must prevention of violence always take on such a modest cloak? 'repay not evil with evil but with love', the scripture encourages and i am reminded that the blessing for peacemakers is to be called a son of God. 

 


 

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