A racist, a gay guy, and a Chinese protester walk into a bar

I was writing late at the Java House Friday and began walking home around 12:30, dodging packs of stumbling, singing youths in matching bar-crawl tee-shirts. I walked up Linn to Market Street, where I noticed a car swerving and a guy running out in front of it, blocking the car every time it tried to go around him. "I love you!" he was hollering, slamming his hands on the hood. Somehow the car squirmed around him and took off.

That's when he turned his attention to the Greyhound bus barrelling down on him. He calmly stepped into its path, in the middle of Market, hands waving in the air, until the bus hissed to a stop right in front of him, a la Tienanmen Square. Guy started smacking the bus windows, yelling, "I love you! I love you!" He walked around to the driver's side and was nearly clipped by a car cruising by in the left lane. When he was out of the way, the bus roared to life again and left him, bereft of reciprocating bus love, in the middle of the street. Backed up on Market were stopped cars, their drivers waiting to see what he would do next. By now I had crossed Market and was standing in front of George's. The dude, facing the glare of wary headlights, finally dropped his hands, turned, and began staggering in my direction.

Naturally I slipped into George's, took a seat at the bar, and threw anxious glances out the front window. But the guy did not come in. The bartender, Jenny, asked what I wanted. I found two dollars in my wallet and ordered a La Crosse.

"Hey, did you see that drunk out there flagging down traffic?" I asked her.

"Scrawny, tall, goatee?"

I nodded.

"I just tossed him out of here!"

"What happened?"

"He wouldn't leave Steve here alone. Kept pawing at him, saying he loved him." She grabbed a thick stack of bills from behind the bar. "On his way out, he threw fifty-six dollars at me. Idiot."

"Probably in the drunk tank by now," observed Steve. "Or the ER." He and I then got caught up in a muted, captioned Sandra Bullock movie.

Down the bar to my left, an old guy slapped a friend on the back and wheezed, "You know the difference between a Jew and a Gentile? A gentile goes out and looks for work. A Jew waits for an offer."

"Hey, who's the racist down there?" someone on the other side of me piped up. "Racism is ugly and ignorant."

"I'm not a racist," the old man protested, though he sounded somewhat chastened. He sat down beside his friend and nursed a beer.

"Sounds to me like you are."

The matter was dropped. Back to Sandra Bullock, some lame crime flick on the Oxygen Channel. I finished my beer, and Jenny approached.

"Another one?"

"No cash, I'm afraid."

"Here, let's let the asshole buy you one." She peeled bills from the stack and replaced my glass under the tap.

"If someone had told me," I said, "while I was watching him stop that bus, that he would be buying me a beer within fifteen minutes ... there'd be no way I could have imagined how that would work."

"And yet it did," she said, pushing the glass toward me. "Fate is funny."

As I sipped that one, I heard two guys talking in low voices on my right -- one of whom had called the racist on his lame joke. "That's rididulous. He's not coming down here." "What if he does?" "All I said was the truth." "I want to leave." "Don't be so scared!" "I don't like it." "Look at him, he's pathetic." "But I'm uncomfortable now." And so on. From their voices, I inferred that they were gay, maybe a couple, maybe not. Which made the guy's challenge to the racist all the more admirable.

I drained the beer bought for me unknowingly by a man who was likely getting used to a jail cell and on my way to the door, on a whim, stopped beside the two guys.

"Who's the one who called that guy on being racist?" I asked.

"I have no idea," said one with a weary smile.

"I did it," the other said, turning on his stool. "I called that fucker a racist. Why?"

"I just wanted to say I admire what you did. Most people don't say anything when they overhear something like that."

"Why don't they?" He was looking at me fairly severely.

"I -- I don't know," I said. "They want to avoid conflict and tension. Take me, I was sitting closer to him down there, and I never made a peep."

"Why didn't you?" He was definitely frowning at me now. He wasn't letting up. It seemed I had made a mistake in stopping to say something.

"W-well, I'm not proud of myself. I grew up with that kind of stuff, and I guess I just found it not worth calling him on. But I just wanted to say I respect that you did. That's all."

He just shook his head at me.

"Okay, well," I said, backing away, "I'm gonna get going now."

He just stared at me. The other one raised a half-hearted hand and turned back to gaze philosophically at his beer.

I walked home feeling slightly uneasy. Why hadn't I said something? At what point would I step in and correct the stupid and the foolish? And why had I stopped to praise someone who had done what I had not? Was I trying to ingratiate myself, to let a little brave behavior rub off on me by association after the fact? I was only in the bar at all to duck a confrontation with Mr. Tienanmen Square in the first place. Like a pinball, I had been passively bounced about, winding up with a free beer on the one hand and a nagging conscience on the other. The free beer was good though.


the plunge said...

Something's off about your not-true story. Why would a gay guy call someone "racist" for making a relatively inoffensive anti-semitic joke? I mean, the gay guy's obviously not Jewish or he would've said, "Hey, that's anti-semitic." Who does he think he is, butting in on my people's behalves? That's what bothers me about these gays. They're always getting offended about everything. Did he ever stop to think that what that man was saying may not even have been a joke, but a statement of pure, unadultered truth?

Corbin, you did the right thing.

the plunge said...

Ha! I mean unadulterated. We jews never adulter; that's the difference between us and Gentiles.

synthetic said...

plunge, use your head. The guy was obviously a gay Jew. Only it looks like the gay is winning. And this is the problem with assimilation.

Jane said...

If the boy who cried racist were really such a crusader for justice, he might have gone over and said something to the jokester's face -- or maybe tried to engage him in conversation -- instead of half-heartedly commenting from the other end of the bar and then acting all pissy about it. And to not give you credit for the respect -- and admission of weakness -- you gave him is just sad. Boo to him and his self-righteousness.

And boo to all those lazy jews, too good to look for work, living on welfare. Oh, wait a minute....

Grendel said...

You all have made me feel better. Thanks a lot. Maybe someday the Jews wil start looking for work, and there won't have to be those jokes in the first place.

MSF said...

everything else aside, i love jenny.

Brando said...

Speaking as someone who grew up being the butt end of Polack jokes (remember those?), the guy making the racist comment totally overreacted. That, as Der Plunge said, was a pretty inoffensive joke, not even harsh enough for Don Rickles. So, Grendel, I think you were totally justified in not saying anything in the first place because there wasn't anything to say. I would have gotten on the old guy's ass for not being funny. I mean, of all the things you can make fun of Jews for, he picks that? The whole episode reminds me of this:

FATHER: Tell me your sins, son.
JERRY: Well I should tell you that I'm Jewish.
FATHER: That is no sin.
JERRY: Oh, good. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
FATHER: And this offends you as a Jewish person?
JERRY: No, it offends me as a comedian.

Grendel said...

I see your point, and fold to your apt quotation of comedy routine. However, I think it's actually a tough call. For one thing, the joke was bad, yes, but something in its very lameness could be said to be a little menacing. Like, are they on no. 999 in Best One Thousand Jewish Jokes? The very exhaustion of material hinted at in choosing such a stupid joke to tell did signal to me that this was just the ugly tip of an iceberg.

Maybe this is one for NPR's The Ethicist. It seems to me that everyone involved in the story has criticism due to him from at least two directions, but how can that be? And why is it that a bad ethnic joke somehow lets you off the hook, but a good one would be really bad? How would the story change if the old guy had said, "You know how copper wire was invented? Two Jews found the same penny." He would be worse, right, more deserving of some kind of comment. But what if he was merely quoting Don Rickles (which is, I believe, where I heard that joke) -- how would that change it?

Pete said...

I think it's important to remember that racist jokes are a symptom here, not the problem itself. Jokes like these challenge the listener to be offended as much as they denigrate the subject of the joke, if not more. Moreover, in an age when racism is still alive and well but not socially acceptable, the telling of jokes is often the only basis we have to think that someone might be breaking the ranks of this supposed (and I think silly) notion of "some of my best friend s are poles" colorblindness. That's why it is uncomfortable. It would be a bit like if the same guy insisted, vehemently, on how pretty a little girl can be. It's not what he is saying, it's what you think he's not saying. That's why I'm quite comfortable telling on off-color joke to a close friend who I know to know that I am neither a child molester, a klansman, or a detractor of poles.

So really, I think this is a matter of poor taste and hazy social boundaries more than one of racism and social crusade.

Brando said...

I agree with Pete. Maybe the guy at the end of the bar was a flaming anti-Semite. Maybe he just liked the joke. The thing I think you have to do is pick and choose your battles. In all seriousness, I think pouncing on every instance of comments that may seem biased simply empowers those comments and gives the person saying them the provocation they are looking for. Saying something (funny or not) that involves some stereotype should not always provoke the Spanish Inquisition. That joke was pretty innocuous in my opinion, and should have been allowed to die a quiet death in the hazy smoke of George's.

synthetic said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Grendel said...

Synthetic, would you mind emailing me and letting me know who you are, and I can return the favor? I'd be much obliged -- you can get my email from my profile. Most everyone who regularly posts here knows who's who, and if you'd like to be included, the same should go for you, I reckon.

synthetic said...

Gee, I dunno, that sounds kind of clubby, Grendel.

Jane said...

Putting a name/face to aliases builds trust and respect. What's clubby about that?

Grendel said...

It's a collaborative blog -- a community, not an anonymous posting station. You missed the meeting five months ago. All the contributors are to be known to all of us. I don't think it's too much to ask for the identity of someone who posts so much here. (In fact, I am revising the rules in the fine print, the last thing in the right-hand column.) It's a matter of knowing who is regularly saying things on this blog that I started and that will be linked to my and other contributors' names. End of story. It's not anarchy here, nor libertarian utopia, nor commune. It's not even democracy. It's a benevolent, informal Grendelocracy. You don't like, free to get your own -ocracy. So come on, Synthetic, we don't bite, unless roused, and all the kids have done it.

synthetic said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Grendel said...

I'm moving this thread...