Since this blog's creation 2 months ago, I've committed myself to writing for at least one hour every single day, a personal goal that, for the most part, I've acheived. The problem is, being a relatively slow writer, I usually don't have time to finish my work. Oh, and the other problem is, that I'm an emotional writer and only write about subjects that I am feeling strongly about at the time. I suppose another way to put this is that I have real trouble finishing anything that I start if I have been interrupted! The following post, however, is something that I started a couple weeks ago that I feel deserves completion, if for no other reason than for personal gain. My goal is to sit at this computer until it is done, so here we go!
I got a job working at a pawn and gun shop right after high school. I had worked as a grocery store "clerk" for almost 3 years before that, and when the opportunity came to get a new, better-paying job (a friend's boyfriend's father owned the store), I jumped at the chance. Aside from the owner's daughter, who was several years older than me and worked "behind the scenes," I was the only female out on the sales floor, where I sold jewelry. Most of the other employees were retired, gun-toting white men who had worked for the company for years. Did I mention that there was a shooting range on the upper floor?
As surprising as it was for me, I fell in love with my job and was good at it. Really good, in fact, and I made quite a bit of money from my commission sales. I sold everything from (used, of course) Rolex's to businessmen, engagement rings to young sailors, and holiday adornments to elderly grandmothers.
More than anything, though, I learned a ton about people and about human nature, in general. I saw prominent, wealthy members of our community pawning their Porches to pay for their gambling additions, crack addicts who sought cash for their gold teeth, and mothers begging for high dollar amounts for their wedding rings in order to feed their children. I saw the same, retired, "customers" coming in every single morning just to shoot the breeze (no pun intended!)with some of our older sales associates, as they had done for years and years before. I (mostly) got used to working alongside men wearing loaded pistols on their hips, not only to "advertise" the latest in gun technology, but to ward off potential "trouble," as well.
Believe it or not, this is not where the "culture shock" came into play. Sure, I was exposed to situations that were far outside my naive white, 18-year-old, middle-class, female comfort zone, especially once I was "promoted" to work behind the front desk (where pawns were made and cash was given), but I was mostly dealing with potentially uncomfortable situations from a distance. In other words, I wasn't traveling with the woman who was "on the run" from her abusive husband, nor did I visit the home of the grief-stricken, local politician whose young wife was dying from Leukemia. Rather, I listened to them while they were there, shed a tear for them after they left, think about them to this day, but always at an arm's length.
The same was not true, however, for my relationship with a fellow employee named Jimmie. Whereas I was the only young female employee of the pawn shop, Jimmie was the company's only middle-aged, African-American associate. I'm not sure if it was because we were the two outliers of the company's swath of employees, or if it would've happened regardless of demographics, but Jimmie and I quickly formed a close friendship. From day one we got along amazingly well, helped each other out with sales, and spent many lunch breaks together conversing about family, work, and life, in general.
For months we saw one another only at work, but one cold, rainy, December day, Jimmie invited me to an event that would change my life forever. Both of us were musicians - I was a vocal music major in college and Jimmie played guitar (and just about everything else) in his church band - and we often spoke about getting together someday to "jam." Needless to say, I was more than willing to accept an impromptu invitation to a holiday gig at Jimmie's church.
Since I was invited toward the end of my shift at work and the concert was that evening, I had little time to prepare. I raced home from work and threw on a little, fire-engine red, wrap-around dress and black high-heels (some of you may not know this, but I was very thin and beautiful for most of my life...that's another blog post that I've written in my head over and over again but just don't have the courage to share. Yet.). I met Jimmie back at the Pawn Shop and we drove to pick up his girlfriend, Lisa, who had no idea that I was going to be there. I'd only met her once, very briefly at work, and she seemed nice enough, but she was visibly shocked to see me. We drove the 10-15 minute drive from Lisa's apartment to the church in near-silence, Lisa's disapproval of me glaringly obvious.
As we drove to the Baptist church I realized that I was in a section of town - a primarily lower-class African American section of town - that I'd never been to before, even though I'd lived in the general area for most of my life. I recall feeling a bit nervous to be somewhere so out of my element... so opposite from the mostly white, middle-class bubble that I had always inhabited.
I took a deep breath as Jimmie opened the door to the recreation hall of his church and stepped inside. There was a buffet set up in the large rectangular room along the wall where we entered and there were long, white tables arranged cafeteria-style where probably 300 or so people were eating their food. Initially, the room was quite loud, everyone happily conversing together while enjoying their meals. But several moment later, and I am NOT just saying this for dramatic effect, the room turned shockingly quiet, as people looked at me, and then at Jimmie, with confused and frankly, appalled expressions on their faces. In an instant I realized that I was the only Caucasian in the room and probably in the entire city block, as well (God did I regret wearing that showy red dress!). I turned to Jimmie in horror, who smiled and winked at me reassuringly, and then ushered me to the buffet (Lisa, by the way, had ducked her head marched immediately to the buffet upon our arrival). The chatter slowly began to increase.
I could barely move my legs to walk to the buffet, or raise my arms to pick up a paper plate, I felt so out-of-place and so uncomfortable with everyone's reactions. When I was done filling my plate, Jimmie showed me to an empty chair next to Lisa's and he left to go set up for the gig. I forced a smile and took my seat. Aside from Lisa, everyone else had already finished their meals and some of the children were clearing the table. Thankfully, Lisa cordially introduced me to everyone at our table - mostly cousins of hers and Jimmie's and their families - and most people were amicable. The atmosphere was still quite tense, though, and I could tell that everyone was on eggshells, but we all made the best out of the situation.
I barely had enough time to shove any food down my throat (not that I had an appetite) when the preacher took the stage and began a prayer. Everyone took hands, lowered their heads, closed their eyes, and prayed. Finally, the lights were lowered and the music began.
Most of the details of the concert are foggy now, over 13 years later, but I do recall being quite impressed with the quality of musicianship and enjoyed the upbeat, funky, spirited nature of the music. I also remember that, although most folks stayed near their seats, everyone in the audience danced, clapped, shouted, flailed their arms and were really engrossed in the music.
This was a far cry from the rigid, formal, and austere Roman Catholic masses that I was familiar with, which definitely added to my already high levels of awkwardness However, my guard gradually came down, and I found eventually found myself swaying to the rhythmic thumping of the bass and at one point, probably an hour or so into the show, I, too, became totally emerged in the music. With sweat pouring down my back and tears streaking my face, I danced as I had never done before and moved in unison with all of the blurry bodies around me. People were holding their arms in the air and shouting, "Hallelujah!" and "Amen!," while others dropped to their knees in prayer.
During a brief pause at the end of the show before the encore, one of the women from my table wrapped her arms around me and repeatedly told me that the "spirit of Jesus" was within me. My mind couldn't quite grasp what she meant, but my heart agreed in an instant. After all, I had just been thinking that it honestly felt as though there was some inexplicable spiritual presence in the room that I had never experienced before and wouldn't experience again for several years.
When the performance was over, the very same eyes that initially met me with, as I saw it, contempt and distrust, softened dramatically. The overwhelming feelings of awkwardness and distance that I had not so long before felt, were replaced by love and acceptance. Although most folks were eager to get home after the gig, many people stopped to welcome me to their church and inquired about my impressions of the show. Not once did anyone ask me how I knew Jimmie or what in the heck I was doing there. I felt comfortable and accepted.
So, why, you may ask, would I feel compelled to share this experience now? Well, there are two reasons. One, because I have been doing a lot of soul searching lately and have been thinking about situations that have been instrumental in forming who I am today. This experience was a real turning point for me and even though it took me a couple of years to truly grasp its impact (which will be revealed in a future post), it was monumental in changing my views in both politics and religion.
I also want to share this story, as well as several others I have in the works, as a way to more or less catch folks up who have recently come back into my life (via Facebook, mostly!) after years of being apart. I've heard over and over again from these friends how very different I am today than I was when they knew me before and they're exactly right! Oh, and by "different," by the way, they don't mean that I have a new hairstyle, that I don't hang out with the same people I used to, or that I've switched careers. In many ways, I'm about as changed as someone can be. Don't get me wrong, much of me is same as ever, but many of the labels have changed! The "old Kim" from about a decade ago and before, for instance, was staunchly Republican, devoutly Catholic, fairly trendy, etc. while the "new Kim" is shamelessly liberal, intensely spiritual (although not religious) and more feminist than feminine. I didn't arrive at this "new and improved" (in my opinion, and when speaking of myself. I have no problem believing that others can be their best selves while Catholic or conservative, or whatever) self over-night. It took numerous life-situations, such as the one this post is about, over several years with much heartache and guilt, to arrive where I am today.
So, when I'm not discussing my latest gardening charades or muttering away about motherhood, I'd love to make this blog a bit of a memoir about where I've been and where I'm going, that will hopefully benefit both you and me. Even though I'm comfortable in my somewhat newer skin, it's been a fairly drastic change for me and it's been difficult at times, for myself and others, to grasp what has led to such a transformation. The prospect of this is simultaneously exciting and scary, so we'll see how it goes!
Also, I realize that I made quite a few generalizations about African Americans, Baptist churches, pawn shop employess and customers, etc. and I hope I have not offended anyone. More than anything, I'm just being honest about my opinions and feelings at the time and in a future post you'll learn the breakthroughs and understandings I've had with all of the above people and how they all changed my life for the better. Initially I wanted to include this now, but it took so long for me to "get it" that I need to explain other experiences, also.