Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Making connections on the road

ALICE LEEDS

The other night I was listening to the radio while washing dinner dishes. The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was in the news again. In a civil trial, a jury will decide whether or not organizers of this event are responsible for the violence that ensued.

I was on the road in August of 2017 when this story broke. My mind returns there …

Rick and I are making our way home from Denver, enjoying daily stops I map out for us. Last night we made it to South Bend, Indiana. This morning, groggy from going through two time zones in two days, we roll into the hotel dining room at 9:20, ten minutes before the kitchen closes. I gather tea and oatmeal while Rick grabs coffee and an omelette along with a complimentary USA Today, and we find a seat.

The rally in Charlottesville is the focus of the morning news on a small television set bolted to the wall. I was already shaken by the initial horrific story while driving east out of Gary on the interstate yesterday. The newscaster on our car radio told of hundreds of racist and antisemitic white nationalist and white supremacist groups gathering and marching across the University of Virginia campus. With tiki torches held high, they were at this moment chanting, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us. White lives matter.”

As a Jew, hearing these words shakes me to my core. It is the first time in my life an antisemitic rally of this scope has occurred in the United States.

On the road, moving from one reality to the next, the horror seems somehow less real, as if it all might disappear with a new time zone, a new location. But it doesn’t.

And now, I’m not yet awake enough to assimilate more of it, how one neo-Nazi white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring eight others.

A woman monitoring the breakfast buffet walks by, and I return to this moment. She’s a woman of color about my age. We strike up a conversation. I explain that I slept in due to the time change driving east and wonder when other guests typically dine. She tells me that business folks can request service as early as 5:30 a.m., which requires her to arrive considerably earlier than that. She’s in the habit of rising by 1:30 a.m. most mornings.

I can hardly imagine waking up that early even once. I realize at our age she’s still working hard, while I’m retired and vacationing. I wish she could be relaxing at home or enjoying visits with her grandchildren, not making breakfast for me.

Between her work in the kitchen and dining areas, we continue our exchange. We appreciate each other’s hair and skin tones. She compliments me on my silver white waves, I appreciate her close-cropped golden curls against her bronze complexion.

We become two women of a similar age sharing our stories. We venture into more personal topics, her involvement with the local church, our drive West to visit grandchildren. She continues returning to the kitchen, then reappears. Is the radio too loud? she asks. She’s listening while working so has it turned up a bit. We don’t mind, we assure her.

Still groggy, I don’t fully absorb how deeply she is attending to the morning news.

Heading east on Interstate 80, I reflect on our brief conversation, which now feels somehow incomplete. I wonder what I could have said to express solidarity in response to the racist, antisemitic events in Charlottesville without sounding patronizing. The isms we face are different, yet both involve oppression. As a white person, I enjoy more privilege, which carries responsibility. I didn’t know how to put all of this into words.

Then I recall our final interaction.

“I guess I shouldn’t have complained about getting up at 7:30,” I had confessed as we cleared our plates.

She had faced me directly yet without anger and responded. “That’s right. You have nothing to complain about.”

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