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It is the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death, and I am thinking about why Mandela mattered so much to so many of us. To me, he represented what could be.  Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time.  Such a sight to behold, even on a television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.

I had seen hope and history rhyme before.  I remember in 1987, before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend took me to the RDS in Dublin to see Paul Simon’Graceland tour.  The boisterous and beautiful performance sparkled on stage as it does in my memory still. For a few beautiful hours of song and dance, Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo lifted our hearts, transcending the ugliness of apartheid. Simon was and, to this day, is widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but I cannot fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most joyful music we might ever hear, sounds that represent like nothing else can, those “days of miracle and wonder” that lived in the heart of Nelson Mandela and, years earlier, in the universal dreams of Martin Luther King?

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Two years later, I was in Arizona. I was a bit of a cliché, a well educated twenty-something Irish immigrant who had over-stayed her welcome in America and found a job in a bar. With my broad Antrim accent and the right amount of naiveté about Arizona,  I was the main source of amusement for the men who had just come off the day-shift. I charmed them with what they considered an Irish brogue, and the more alcohol I served up, the more they wanted to tell me all about their Irish roots.  

This was long before micro-breweries were de rigueur, but I still found myself flummoxed by the many options of beer in its variously colored cans. Until then, my booze repertoire was limited to about four options – Powers whiskey, the black stuff, Harp, and Hendricks gin. To help me out, the regulars indulged me, “Hey Irish,” they’d beckon and then they would order rounds by color: “Gimme three silver bullets, a red and blue, two white and blue, and two yellow.”  

Around 3:30 every afternoon, the man I eventually married arrived and, along with his friends, gathered at the end of the bar closest to the door and farthest from the phone. “I’m not here if anyone calls,” they would mouth to me, expecting me to lie to their wives and girlfriends. I dubbed their end of the bar, “Cynics Corner.” I suppose we would have fit in handily on the cast of Cheers. My Ken always arrived first, to find his beer waiting for him, a Miller Lite in a white and blue can. Then I would position myself behind the bar, right across from him, where I would nonchalantly wrap silver-ware in paper napkins, exchanging quips and innuendoes without making eye-contact, because when I did, I blushed.

No, Ken wasn’t the fictional Sam Malone, Cheers owner erstwhile recovering alcoholic and former Red Sox player with a little black book full of women’s names and numbers. Ken didn’t need a team of writers, and I never met a woman who wasn’t charmed by him; and, I wasn’t Diane Chambers (well, maybe just a little) but the chemistry between us was undeniable, and it more than made up for the lack of compatibility. I know that now more than ever.

The banter and badinage flew like electrical sparks between us, and those around us laughed and winked knowingly when we got into a spat. We were – as they say back home – great craic when we got going. We became the entertainment, and everybody knew we belonged together – even before we did. Had Dr. Frasier Crane been a regular, he would have had this to say about our performance:

“I know, I know. Now you’re going to deny it. Even though it’s ludicrously obvious to everyone around you, you two will go on pretending it’s not true because you’re EMOTIONAL INFANTS. You’re in a living HELL. You love each other, and you hate each other, and you hate yourselves for loving each other. Well, my dear friends, I want no part of it. It’s time I just picked up where I left off. It’s time to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So I’ll get out of here so you can just get on with your denial fest.”

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But in the mornings, the bar was quiet, with only a few customers coming in after they’d worked the grave-yard shift. One of them was Cliff. He was tall and handsome with a million dollar smile, and Cliff was black. Like the other regulars, he teased me about my accent, about Ken (everyone did), and he asked me endless questions about Ireland and if it was really that green over there and how could it be that a nice girl like me with a college education was working in a dump like this.

One morning, Cliff came during a hasty tutorial with the bartender on how to make cocktails. She had decided it was high time I graduated from serving beer in colored cans to making mixed drinks, so by 10 o’clock that morning,  there was a long row of dubious cocktails waiting for anyone interested. These were drinks I had never heard of before, given my origins in a country where  as long as the pub had Powers for a hot whiskey, Guinness or Hendricks for a gin and tonic, I was grand.  But that morning, I was deep in a learning curve – familiarizing myself with popular highball cocktails that every bartender should know and then the lowball cocktails favored by some of the locals, like the Mudslide which Bobby, on a Friday night, ordered for everyone in the bar. There were never enough shot-glasses.

Rather than serving up his regular well bourbon,  I thought Cliff might like to try out some of my creations. “So, what’s your pleasure?” I asked. “Perhaps a Tequila Sunrise or a Salty Dog or even a Long Island Iced Tea will sort you out for the rest of the day.” I don’t remember what he chose, but he thought it was very funny that I had written down all the recipes and that I was planning to learn them all “by heart,” the way you would a catechism. While Cliff drank one of my concoctions, we chatted about nothing important – how hot it was already that summer morning, what my plans were for the weekend, that kind of thing.

I hadn’t turned on the jukebox, so the only sounds were coming from the kitchen, a dropped fork, a “Godammit” when the owner realized he was missing some ingredient vital to the daily lunch special or that the cook had spiked the coffee with Baileys. Again. The other bartender was in the office well out of earshot, and at the other end of the bar, there were two men sharing a pitcher of Budweiser.  They weren’t talking to each other, just staring ahead and smoking.

Chopping limes and slicing lemons, I chatted to Cliff. I remember laughing at something he had said. Then one of those men called out to the owner who was still out of sight, “Since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”

Once again, “I said, since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”

And I froze.

I felt fear. I felt the kind of fear I used to feel when I saw those black and white newspaper pictures of a young Catholic woman in Belfast who had been stripped and tied to a lamp-post, hot tar and feathers poured on her roughly shorn head because she had committed the crime of falling in love with a British solider. In ”Punishment,” harrowing and haunting to read, Seamus Heaney evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed. A primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ in the Northern Ireland of his day.  He says to the dead woman,

My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.

I took a powerful lesson away from this poem, which I have applied to all manner of situations in my life, but I did not apply it that morning in the bar.

I couldn’t breathe. 

As naive as this sounds now –  especially on the day following the day when a Grand Jury cleared a white police-officer in the  choke-hold death of an unarmed black man, Eric Garner; in the week following the week when a Grand Jury decided there would be no indictment of the police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson – I had thought, in 1980s America, that racism had been eradicated. Eradicated.

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I think I thought such a thing, because in 1977, my parents and I – along with everyone else we knew – gathered around our little television on a Sunday night, and we watched ‘Roots,’ horrified, as Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery in America and whipped within an inch of his life for trying to escape. Night by night, we watched, our hearts broken. I suppose I believed that just as the entire country seemed to be galvanized by the story unfolding on Roots, that an entire country would subsequently adopt a kinder, gentler attitude, but it didn’t, did it?

Of Roots, James Baldwin writes:

Roots” is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one–the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.

That morning in a little bar in Phoenix, Arizona, I couldn’t have been further away from Gambia, West Africa in 1750, Kunta Kinte’s place of birth.  And still, I said nothing to those two men.  To Cliff, I said, “I’m sorry,” but I said it quietly, too quietly.

I couldn’t breathe.

Cliff said nothing to me, but he looked at me and his eyes, I saw not anger, just a resignation, a look that said, clearly, that he was “used to it.” With those elegant fingers, he picked up his hat, put it on his head, stood up, and he walked out the door. He left a $20 tip.

I never saw him again.

I am so sorry.

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