An American Vignette for Black History Month
In this month, designated as Black History month, I feel it appropriate to share a history of an incident that occurred when I was about 10 years of age, and that I’ve held in memory ever since.
The setting goes back to mid 60s Long Island, New York, the heyday of a prospering middle class that had risen on the tide of the Roosevelt-era New Deal. There were regional chains and independent department stores of all kinds; there was hustle and bustle everywhere, with the parking lots filled on Saturday afternoons. (It must be admitted that there were few Black faces sharing in that economic activity, though that would begin changing within a few years.)
This incident took place on one such Saturday afternoon in one of those great big crowded parking lots. My father, a former Brooklyn tough guy who’d removed to the suburbs, had turned onto a lane in search of a parking space. Surprisingly, a vacant space was available, and he began his turn into the spot. However, from the opposite direction, another vehicle approached with the same intention. Both vehicles ended up partially turned into the contested space, sort of 45 degrees apart from each other.
Both drivers got out of the cars, and the arguing began. “I saw that space first!” “No, I got here first!” What I was surprised at was that the other driver was a Black man. I remember him clearly: He was striking in appearance: tall, well-built, dressed in the style and look of a sophisticated Black man of that day–sport jacket, turtle-neck shirt underneath, dark sunglasses, I can’t remember if he wore a process hair style.
The verbal battle increased in intensity, with neither side backing down. A crowd began to gather. As this scene began to build in intensity, a security guard appeared. I remember him well also, dark complexion, aquiline nose, probably Italian. He appeared to be a a working guy who put on a uniform as part of a weekend job. The security guard stepped up to the arguing parties, each maintaining, “I saw it first”, and “No, I saw it first!”
One could feel the crowd’s apprehension. This wasn’t the Deep South, and I don’t believe people wanted to see anything ugly happen.
We all waited for his response. He addressed each party with a look: “You know what? I wasn’t here. I didn’t see who got here first. The both of you go and find another parking space!”
I was amazed at the absolute perfection of this decision. He defused the situation, all parties could hold their head up; no one was humiliated. And race was rendered a non-issue. Later on, as I reflected on this incident, as I did from time to time, I thought that King Solomon himself could not have issued a more righteous judgment.
In those days, the teaching of civics was still a strong tradition, and a 10 year-old child understood that America had an aspiration, an ideal, towards which she strove. And in my eyes, I thought that maybe, on an intimate level, she touched the mark that day: The basic decency and respect of one American citizen for another–what everyone wants and needs, to receive and to give, as well.
This is the first that this vignette of American history has been recorded, and I’ve wanted for the longest time to be able to share this story that has inspired me. I hope that the readers find it does the same for them.