(yes, I’ve resurrected this from the dead! Zombie blog walks the earth, once again.)
I’m in a new(ish) city and scraping myself back together after a rather harsh break-up, so I’ve been out and about and meeting people like it’s my second job. Hence the willingness to go up to people whom I ordinarily wouldn’t approach, and engage in small-talk – something Past Me would have dreaded immensely.
Of course, even Past Me might have made an exception for this lady:
She said that what she was knitting was a shawl, and when my friend complimented her on the use of the Orioles’ colors, she said that the shawl did not have anything to do with the local sports team. She’s 82 years old and has been knitting since she was nine. “I knit too,” I offered.
“You’re too young to knit!”
“But I’m older than nine!”
I asked if I could take her picture – she assented, and no she wasn’t angry, despite what it looks like in the photo (that’s what people look like mid-sentence) – and she insisted that I have a name associated with her photo, and she told me what it was. I shook her hand before my friend and I ran out to catch an improv show. I was pretty enchanted by this lady and her moxie – rocking a homemade outfit straight out of the good ol’ days, publicly knitting (also publicly filing her nails in the pizza parlor, which was a little less enchanting). This woman dared to be so quintessentially herself, out in a world that looked so incongruous to her. I posted this picture on Instagram and Facebook, presenting her as an example of Baltimore’s charming quirkiness, people liked it, and that was that.
Except that I couldn’t just leave it as a sweet, amusing vignette. Perceptive readers will notice that I haven’t told you this woman’s name. I did what any curious modern person with Internet access would do, and Googled her name, to uncover this piece of history from the Baltimore Sun:
[She] looked very much like a throwback to a time when being white was so right in America that the phrase “free, white and 21” wasn’t even considered offensive.
The article concerns a curious incident in which a house (very near to the pizzeria) was raided, revealing “80 pounds of gunpowder, 14 rifles, eight handguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition and other [handmade] weapons.” The owner of the house was arrested, and it turned into a legal kerfuffle because of controversy surrounding the warrant for the raid. It became a media sensation because of all the guns, and also because the couple were white supremacists. (!)
There’s very little doubt that the D.E.W. described in the article is the same person depicted above in my hastily-applied Instagram filter: she’s described as “clad in a blue denim-type dress that dropped nearly to the ankles, while sporting a matching hat that had an Amish or Mennonite quality. She wore a red bandana tied around her neck. A red shawl draped from her shoulders.” (I’m guessing, though this might be a stretch, that this shawl may have been hand-knit).
Further Googling uncovered a transcript of an interview with this dear little old lady on Stormfront, a notorious Internet hangout for racists, which I’ll not link to here. She describes an incident in which she was assaulted with a broken beer bottle. These are the words she says: “once you have been attacked by a black it changes your entire outlook toward that race of people. Ever since then I have wanted to do something about it.” She then started actively campaigning for “Pro-White” groups and so forth.
I was floored and maybe a little crushed. I’ve known about Baltimore’s fractious history with race, and I know that it permeates nearly everything to do with the functioning (or lack thereof) of this city. I guess I was naive in assuming that people at least pretend not to openly value racism. She said those words in 2003 — over ten years ago. Did she still believe these things now? I shook this woman’s hand! Here I was, a little chirpy Asian woman out and about in the company of an older white man. What did she think of me?
If I encounter her again (which I likely will, because I didn’t get a chance to try the pizza at Matthew’s and I’ve heard it’s fabulous), I can’t leave well enough alone – I want to know whether or not her world view has shifted or has solidified in this last decade. It put me in mind of a fascinating recent episode of This American Life, concerning Asa Carter, former racist speechwriter of George Wallace turned faux-Native American memoirist and writer of books espousing peace and harmony among the races. Do people ever really change?
The picture shifts; in soft light it is a delightful expression of eccentricity and joyful being. Shadows and past traumas darken the edges. I showed it to a coworker of mine who grew up in that neighborhood. She said she didn’t recognize the woman, but she recognized that patterned bag in the lower right hand corner – this bag is commonly distributed at homeless shelters. Did D.E.W. lose her home after that raid? What happened to her? Everything about her seems so sad, so old and so wedded to a toxic past that there can’t possibly be room for any present that involves a black president, or a chirpy Asian girl yakking it up with a white man in an Italian pizza parlor staffed with Mexicans.
Even so, should I run into her again, I think I will try to be as effortlessly friendly to her as I was during our first encounter. It’s really the only way to be. And I admit, I do have this weirdly positive, naive faith in the power of little demonstrations of kindness to wear down habits of hatred. Maybe.