Back story: She was from upstate New York, I from San Diego; both of us from snow-white neighborhoods. It was 1971. Grey-brown smoke on the the northern horizon still lingered in my mind; Watts burning. We moved into the thin white line on the eastern edge of the Grand Concourse young, naive and terrified of the mixed-race neighborhoods that spilled into the center lanes of the Grand Concourse on weekends. We walked to work through the neighborhoods and swept broken glass from the playground of the school where we taught.
One evidence of our naivete was the presence of our Pontiac Tempest living with us in the City. One Sunday, shopping for some small item of furniture, we parked under the elevated a few blocks west of the Grand Concourse. Returning to our car, it refused to start. My knowledge and ability at car repair, then and now, fits into a thimble with room left over.
I raised the hood, gazing with glazed eyes at the engine. I fiddled with a wire and shouted to my wife, “Try it again, trying to impress my bride.” She did. It clicked but no response from the engine.
“Having a little problem?” The words drifted over my left shoulder. I turned and look up and up and still farther up till I could focus on the black face of one of the tallest men I’ve ever seen.
“Problems?” he repeated.
“It won’t start,” I mumbled, fear gripping my gut, knowing I’d lose my money or worse before this interchange ended.
He leaned into the engine compartment beside me, touched a wire and said, “Try it again.” Nothing. His hands disappeared into the engine’s innards. We repeated the process.
“I know what the problem is,” he said. “You need a new thingamajig.” (Substitute some car part for “thingamajig”–I don’t remember and probably never knew what it was anyway.)
“I’ll be back,” he said. “I’ll run down into Manhattan and get the part.” He jogged across the street to the elevated stairs and disappeared.
Some time later, he reappeared with the part, removed the old one, replaced it with the new and said, “Try it again.” The engine roared to life.
I turned to him in amazement and gratitude and thanked him. It was truly an amazing thing. I reached out between us to shake his hand; his engulfed mine. He smiled and turned to go.
“Wait, let me pay you.”
“No, man,” he said and finishing the turn, disappeared into the crowd.Something melted within me; a bit of fear slid away, a lot of mistrust, a block of prejudice I hadn’t even known lived inside of me.
Black, he fixed it and me.