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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Two Conversations About One Thing

1: Co-Worker, Early Thursday Morning

“Over in Longmeadow, some buddies and me useta have a poker game. We played on the last Friday of every month, at the house of the former Chief of Police, no less! One of our co-workers was a Black guy, and the first time we invited him, we had to give him directions to the house, right? So I start tellin’ him how to get there, and he says to me, ‘don’t bother; I’ll get pulled over by the cops as soon as I enter Longmeadow city limits.’ We all laughed at that, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly what happened. He didn’t get a hundred feet into Longmeadow before the cops pulled him over, shined a flashlight in his eyes, and asked him what business he had in Longmeadow. Back in those days, Longmeadow was pretty exclusive, what with the red-lining and all that. Anyway, our Black friend informs the cops that he’s on his way to the house of the former Chief of Police, so they let him go. But you can bet they followed him all the way to the house, and they didn’t drive away until he went inside.”

My unease had been growing throughout this conversation, but now my Spidey Sense was tingling like a mofo. What, exactly, was my co-worker’s point? Was he lamenting the psychic toll of racial profiling, or was he expressing solidarity with the pigs? Was this one of those dreaded moments when I would have no choice but to call out the racism of a co-worker (in this case someone who could conceivably make my life at work very difficult), thereby earning the eternal label of “office malcontent”? Things had been going so well…

“Wow,” I replied flatly, “that sounds horrible.” I decided to be magnanimous and withhold judgement until I had more to go on. Also, I’m a coward.

My co-worker chuckled. “Horrible maybe, but it worked. You could walk the streets of Longmeadow in the middle of the night and not worry about getting a knife jammed in your ribs. I’m tellin’ you,” he continued, lowering his voice slightly, “that’s exactly what they need in Springfield; keep out the criminal element.”

“Hopefully not based solely on whether the guy is Black, though…” was my weak response.

“Oh, it wasn’t just Blacks,” my co-worker protested. “They didn’t let in the Hispanics or Asians, either. Or Jews”

* * * *

2: Antique Furniture Dealer and his Wife, Last Sunday Afternoon

“Scum of the earth, I tell ya.” He nearly spat the words at me. “Filthy, lowlife scum of the earth,” he added, clarifying his previous comment.

“He works for the phone company,” his wife interjected, nodding toward her husband. “He knows what goes on in those houses.”

We were at the Brimfield Antique Fair, and had been admiring a vintage Lane coffee table this dealer had refinished. We mentioned that we were furnishing our new house, he asked where our house was located, and we stupidly told him.

“Oh Dear God,” he responded. “Anywhere but Springfield.”

“Ha ha,” we forced a nervous laugh. “Yes, that’s what everyone tells us,” we responded with false bravado.

“That town used to be beautiful,” he muttered, shaking his head ruefully. “But those animals ruined it. It’s all those multi-family houses; they attract a low-class kind of people.”

With that comment, he had stepped over my internally-demarcated line of acceptable behavior, and I was roused to respond.

“Well, I’ve spent many years of my life in multi-family housing,” I declared, trying to muster a tone that would indicate pride in this fact. “It seems to me that the people who live in multi-family housing are just people with less money.”

Okay, it wasn’t a particularly artful or convincing retort, but hey, at least I didn’t wuss out and agree with him. In any case, my argument left the antique dealer undeterred from his central point, which seemed to be: Springfield is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ruled by sociopathic machete-wielding Negro warlords and overrun by crack-addicted, AIDS-infected Hispanic child molesters, and no self-respecting White person would live there if they had a choice. (I’m paraphrasing.)

At this point, though, I was still kinda interested in the coffee table he had for sale, so I tried to engage his wife in a conversation about that. It was too late; she was all fired up on the topic of Springfield.

“I’m sorry; how much for the coffee table?” I asked for the second time, in a desperate attempt to pull the conversation back on track.

“He’s right, you know,” the wife told me, then lowered her voice to a conspiratorial tone. “You have to watch those ni-”

“Honey, what do you think?” interrupted Robin. “Do you like the coffee table?”

In the background, the husband was still fulminating: “You’ve gotta get yourself a security system, and right away. Those animals will break into your house, kill you, and steal all the copper pipes, and that’s before they -”

“I’m sorry; what did you say?” I demanded of the antique dealer’s wife, trying to cut through the jumble of cross-wired conversations. I couldn’t quite believe that she had said what I thought I had heard.

“You’ve got to watch those ni -”

“You know,” the husband cut in, “if you’re interested in Lane stuff, you can always come by our showroom. We’ve got a much better selection there.” He handed Robin his card.

I never was positive what the antique dealer’s wife said to me. The vibe of the whole encounter was toxic, but everything was just shy of overt racism, and I couldn’t sort out how to respond. I felt furious for a while afterward, both at myself for not speaking up more effectively, and at the antique dealers for being such assholes.

Anyway, we didn’t buy their stupid coffee table. That’ll teach ’em.

* * * *

Before you get too carried away by my “Springfield’s bad rep is nothing but poorly-camouflaged racism” narrative, consider this sobering factoid:

In 2005, Morgan Quitno ranked Springfield, MA as one of the “25 Most Dangerous Cities” in the U.S.

And before you buy my “We want to live an integrated life” discourse hook-line-and-sinker, remember that we are buying a house in the whitey-est whitey-hood in the entire city. So we won’t actually be, you know, living in close proximity to any Neighbors of Color.

And, yes, we may even install a security system.

* * * *

Faithful reader and good friend Jeff Lageson wrote in to ask, “Well… what IS the coffee situation?”

You’d think that, after raising that very question in this blog’s prominent subtitle, I would have answered it by now. The thing is, I keep hoping that I’ll discover some previously-unknown network of quality independent (and preferably Fair Trade, but I’m desperate enough to compromise) coffee houses. It pains me to report that this hoped-for network has not materialized.

Robin and I have asked every new acquaintance the same question: “Where can we get a good cup of coffee around here?” To a person, they have offered the same maddening response: “Well, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts about two blocks from here…

Just to be absolutely clear: That “two blocks from here” is not just my shorthand way of paraphrasing their response. That is, in fact, what people actually say, because no matter where you are currently standing in New England, there is undoubtedly a Dunkin’ Donuts within two blocks. Most places, you can’t fully extend your arm without touching one; they are that ubiquitous. In the half-mile between the freeway offramp and my office, I pass no less than three brightly-lit orange-and-purple Dunkin’ Donuts outlets.

In the local “alternative” weekly paper’s annual “Best Of” issue, in the category of “Best Cup of Coffee,” readers voted Dunkin’ Donuts number one, and Starbucks a distant second. Third was Blue Moon, an independent place I want to patronize on principle, but their waitstaff is sullen and their shots are watery.

As a Seattle resident, I took the omnipresence of Starbucks for granted. I assumed their marketplace dominance was global. Here in Springfield, I couldn’t even tell you where the nearest Starbucks is. I think I’ve seen two.

Bottom Line: Since arriving in Massachusetts, I’ve had a grand total of one excellent Americano, at Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters. Shelburne Falls is home to the Flower Bridge and the Glacial Potholes where we went swimming, and it is approximately 50 miles from our house. I hear tell that they have an outlet in Northampton, the Fremont-esque “cultural center” which is about 23 miles away, so I’ll have to check that out. In the meantime, it looks like we’ll be investing in an espresso machine.

In related news, I have been fortunate enough to find one local bartender who understands that the construction of a truly world-class Lemon Drop requires more than just off-brand vodka garnished with a day-old slice of lemon. That would be at Pazzo, a surprisingly good Italian restaurant housed (don’t laugh) in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

After losing a bitter argument over how far we should be willing to drive to a restaurant for dinner, I pulled over angrily in West Springfield. “Fine! Why don’t we just eat here, at… Pintu’s?” As it turns out, the dining-out gods were smiling upon us that evening, because Pintu’s serves the finest Indian food I’ve ever devoured. Delectable nan, fragrant jalfrazi, and yummy paneer won us over. An unexpectedly global list of beers sealed the deal.

Pho Saigon is our current Vietnamese restaurant of choice, and Typical Sicilian Pasta-In-A-Bucket is better than you would think, if you were judging based on their unfortunate name.

Contrary to initial impressions, there are plenty of dining options here in the Springfield area. In this, and in other areas like grocery shopping, we are slowly re-orienting our thinking. It’s not so much that our choices are grievously restricted in Springfield; it’s more that we were outrageously spoiled in Seattle. In some ways (we keep telling ourselves), having fewer choices is actually better. If we want to shop for groceries, there are only two possibilities in our immediate vicinity, instead of sixteen. If we want Italian food, there are three choices nearby, not twenty-two. This simplifies things.

A simpler, less frantic life is one thing I claimed I wanted. Now we have to actually live with that choice. So far, we’re doing just fine, but check back with me in a couple of years.

* * * *

Here are some things we did recently:

We picked apples (and herbs and decorative flowers!) with Robin’s sister Jeanine

We visited Boston…

We went up to the top of Mt. Tom and surveyed the majesty of the Pioneer Valley…

We visited the Brimfield Antique Show (the largest in the U.S.!), and saw lots of crap like this…

and this…

and enjoyed a nutritious lunch…

I wasn’t able to leave without purchasing this astonishing piece of artwork, which I plan to hang over our marital bed:

Cajoled by co-worker Tom and his special friend Netta, we finally dropped 32 clams to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame…

Robin practiced her rebound skillz…

While I rocked the mic and made like Bob Costas…

Next Time: The Springfield Mystery Spot!

One Comment

  1. I think the presumption that you must just naturally agree with them is what is most disturbing to me … and I will forward a copy of your comments on Springfield to Howard Schultz so that he will get right on it ….

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