Friday, March 19, 2010

The Real de Ville

Larry Piltz

Dr. Batson was just sitting there behind the wheel watching, stopped at the stop sign. It wasn't his fault my ancestors felt forced to leave behind the Pale to start a new life in America, where I'd eventually turn the corner a little too widely and scrape the silver Sedan deVille nameplate off the front fender of his sleek 1966 Cadillac. Nor had his ancestors been at fault when they were earlier forced to leave behind their own land and start their new lives in America. None of them were just sitting there asking for it.

No, it wasn't anyone's fault at all. It was just a shame, a crying avoidable shame. If only I'd paid closer attention. I'd never before hit a car. How could I know there were actual consequences for not clearing a turn, for being young and cocky? It was evidently beyond my imagination. And though Dr. Batson's car was wide, the lane narrow, and the telephone pole looming, I'd thought my teenage invincibility extended to my 1966 Bel Air as well. Not even the broad daylight helped.

Yes, it was just one of those things that didn't have to happen but did happen. And now that it had happened, the only thing that mattered was what to do about it. I tried to ponder, but there wasn't time. I couldn't flee the scene onto Division Street and escape through West End Homes, Biloxi's red-brick public housing apartments where I'd gone to Cub Scout meetings, because he'd clearly seen me, driver's windows being just feet apart. Besides, it wouldn't be right, and I'd be in worse trouble getting caught later. At least I hadn't been drinking.

I got out of my white whale of a car, leaned down and picked up the still shiny and barely bent Sedan de Ville, stepped up to his open window where his suit jacket arm was resting, and extended it to him. He glanced at it quizzically, before graciously accepting with a slight smile, me with my why-me politeness. The inviting new electric-eye door of the Piggly Wiggly not that many yards away beckoned, but my reckoning was with a pillar of the community and my immediate fate an adult interaction that would be pretty much one-sided in that regard.

He got out his car, and we moved to the front fender to look at the damage together, except there was none, other than the silver Sedan de Ville he was still holding in his left hand. Not a scratch on the factory paint could be seen, even in direct sun, a beautiful green. It was mildly miraculous, without the slightest hint of a ding. Only the dust had been disturbed. How lucky could I get? Still, I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd turned and bopped me in the head with the steel nameplate. It would have nicely summed up the whole experience and felt a bit merciful, because, frankly, I had earned it.

It wasn't necessary, though. He could tell I was already appropriately chagrined, and I was busy figuratively bopping myself in the head anyway for causing this minor but actual dent in the day, and for what my parents would say when I told them I'd managed to scrape the Sedan de Ville from the Cadillac of the only black doctor in Biloxi. There was bound to be some sort of hell to pay for the ridiculous situation. Even the threat of criticism from parents is too much for a teen's fragile dignity.

Standing next to me, Dr. Batson seemed calm, even at repose, which I did my best to adopt, but my calm was more of a mock calm, around which the disparate elements of the encounter were whirling. How would I get the money to pay for the repair? What would I tell my friends? What did I really feel about African-Americans and Cadillacs, as well as other unfair stereotypes? How could I possibly be superior to such a stoic and accomplished man, who's also probably a better driver than me? How fully should white people's responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination occupy the already guilt-wracked Jewish psyche, when many white people don't consider Jews truly white? What did Dr. Batson think of all this? What would he want?

What bothered me most acutely, though, that I couldn't mentally articulate at the time, was that besides my family's twice-a-week maids through the years, mainly Ruby and Marvena, and long-time gardener, Mr. Carver, I couldn't remember ever having an interaction with a black person. Dr. Batson was the first, and I wondered if he might could tell.

I felt unconcealable discomfort about our separate parts of town, separate schools, separate floors in the hospital, separate restaurants, separate grocery stores, separate public bathrooms, and separate water fountains, and that blacks were allowed on the beach only one day a week in only one particular spot.

All the restaurants I'd eaten in, the streets I'd lived on, the schools I'd gone to, the stores I'd shopped in, the parks I'd played in, the movies I'd sat through, the Little League teams I'd been on, and friends I'd had, were all white. Even the roads seemed almost entirely white. My world had been closed, my preference predetermined, my mind made up for me. It all was subterranean and suppressed, out of mind and in plain sight. It was the forbidden topic, the fait accompli, the way it is, the way it would be. It was 1968 Mississippi.

My comfort was that Dr. Batson was steady, gentle, kind to a fault, and instantly forgiving. I liked him. He was a real gentleman, not unlike my dad. However, he did seem the slightest bit uncomfortable, though in my limited mind I attributed it to an awkward amusement on his part, such that he might be having a quiet chuckle at my expense, since the world obviously revolved around me and my driving error. I couldn't put myself in his place at all. He didn't seem exotic. He seemed from another universe.

Back in reality, Dr. Batson realized that in the face of my actual awkwardness he was calling the shots and dictated the terms. Fifty dollars was his compassionate request for his trouble and repair. My guess was he was relieved there wasn't more damage, which helped him go easy on me. Fifty dollars would make it all go away, and teach me a lesson, because I'd have to get it from my parents and pay them back, but they too would be relieved it wasn't worse. Soon the nameplate would be back in place, and I could go forward with my life relatively unscraped and only lightly examined.

When later that day at our oak-shaded home overlooking Biloxi Bay I told my parents what had happened and asked for the money, there was a pregnant pause, as if all the underlying racial history and tone, the town's saturating misanthropic racial oppression, plus the concern over damage liability, were all wordlessly considered, calculated, and resolved in mere seconds. No computer will ever be able to do that, I'd bet, though they'll always be more easy to program than humans.

So the fifty dollars was gladly enough handed over to me, I drove extra carefully across town to Dr. Batson's home, passing from one segregated zone into another, crossing a distinct no-man's-land sheltering a small industrial area and some railroad tracks, and walked up to his front door. I believe he lived one street over from Marvena. It was good to see him, and when I handed him his money, my main feelings were relief, a little not-quite-white Jewish guilt, and much less discomfort than I had dreaded. How Dr. Batson felt I'll never truly know, though I suspect he was at least as relieved as I was.

As I closed his front gate, I had an unsummoned sober reverie about how much beer fifty bucks could have bought, especially Jax and Dixie, and patted myself on the back for a job well done that day and for not having been even a little drunk. My teen angst at having been caught doing something both wrong and dumb was alleviated. Case closed and what am I going to do tonight?

My father and Dr. Batson later lived many years across the street and one house down from each other in a nice new subdivision, with tall pines and big live oaks, only a block from Biloxi's lengthy bay, salt marshes, and breezes, both having moved there as they began aiming toward retirement. My father had been perfectly glad to have him as a neighbor. After all, Dr. Batson was civil, even gentle, a fellow professional, and quiet, traits they shared. Dr. Batson, I imagine, felt the same way. And, they had a slight history together, thanks to me.

Dr. Batson had a debilitating stroke at some point, and his devoted son took good care of him for years until age and decline took him. Today Dr. Batson's son and my dad exchange waves when they see each other coming or going to their comfy homes, and I'm left with the impression that nothing that happens in life is ever really, wholly and irreconciliably an accident, but avoidable if you're paying close enough attention, which isn't required but can prove helpful, though the world doesn't end either way.

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