This compelling short story By Russell MacClaren delves into the issue of race relations and our perceptions of each other.
One hot summer day in 1976 I prepared to crawl under a building at the Desire St. project in New Orleans to run wires for a HUD electrical upgrade. As I opened the metal hatch to make my descent, a Coke bottle burst above my head.
I looked to see who’d thrown it and faced a crowd of kids ranging in age from six to twelve or thirteen. All fingers were directed to a youngster of about twelve.
I walked to where he stood. “Why did you throw the bottle, Son?”
“Because you don’t belong here. This is a black project, and you’re white.” He impressed me with his directness and honesty, despite his hatred.
“Do you have a job in The Desire?” I asked.
“No, I live here.”
“Well, this is my job,” I retorted. “I’m putting in wiring and panels and outlets to make your project nicer, so I guess you could say I work for you. Don’t you want a nicer place?”
“Yes, Sir,” he said with a half smile as he lowered his head to his chest. “Guess I do….”
“Look at me,” I insisted. “Think you could put up with a whitey or two if we were here to make your life easier?”
“Guess I could….”
“Could I trust you with a fiver to chill us out a bit?”
“Whadda ya mean?”
I handed him a five dollar bill. “Take this; go get me and you and the rest of your friends some huckabucks. If the lady says it’s not quite enough, tell her there’s more where it came from and that she should give you a discount for buying in quantity anyhow.”
“She’ll go for that too,” he said. “By the way, name’s Willie.”
“I’m Russell,” I answered.
“Thank you, Mr. Russell.”
“Just Russell,” I said then repeated it, “…just Russell.”
“If it’s okay with you, I’ll call you the ‘Lectric Man.”
Willie and a couple of his friends left and brought huckabucks for themselves, me and the rest of their group. Willie got the number exactly right.
“Thank you, Willie,” I said, half surprised he’d come back.
“No, Sir. Thank you!”
“We all sat down and enjoyed our huckabucks. The frozen fruit was welcome on those hot summer days.
* * *
A week later I was sitting with my feet hanging over a hatch above the second floor apartments. A kid on the landing below saw powdered insulation fall to his feet.
“Waz dat, Mista?” he asked.
In one of my moments of insanity, I answered, “That’s ghost dust.”
“Ghost dust?” the six-year-old answered.
“Course,” I responded. “You know ghosts are invisible?”
“Well, we gotta throw ghost dust on ‘em to see where they are.”
I squeezed the trigger on my drill so he could hear it whirring.
“Waz dat?” the kid asked again.
I pulled my drill with it’s huge inch and a quarter auger bit to the opening so he could see and squeezed the trigger again.
“First we throw dust on the ghosts so we can see where they are, then we drill holes in ‘em and let the air out till they’re gone.”
Shortly a crowd of kids huddled on the landing as I stepped down the ladder. The little guy pointed at the insulation. “That’s ghost dust.”
Willie was there and broke into an uproar. “Ain’t no such thing as ghost dust,” he said. “That’s the ‘Lectric Man. He’s crazy, and he’ll tell you anything for a laugh, but he’s cool just the same.”
As days wore on, Willie seemed to be close every time I looked up. Once, when I didn’t have any cash, he even bought me a huckabuck.
* * *
One night, as I was leaving work, I stopped at a light with a semi on my right side and my view of traffic that way obstructed. When the light turned I took off despite the fact the truck hadn’t moved. Figured it was just slow off the line. I got T-boned.
Five minutes later the traffic had cleared but for our two cars and the two of us waiting for police. The whole scenario disturbed me: Both the cop and the guy who hit me had dark skin. Didn’t figure the cop to be dishonest, but who would expect him to believe me? I was an outsider.
The driver of the other car approached the officer. “He ran the red light,” the man said resolutely.
What could I answer? I replied, “He’s the one who ran the light,” not expecting my words to carry much weight.
Willie ran to my side and put his hand on my shoulder. He looked at the cop, then at me and shook his head. “I saw the whole thing,” he said. “That dude there ran the light,” indicating the other driver. “The white guy here was in the right. He’s the ‘Lectric Man.”
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