On the way home from my father’s funeral, I stopped to fill the gas tank and use the bathroom before getting on the road. The knob on the bathroom door was broken. Everything was filthy and stank to high heaven. Somehow, I managed to hover above the toilet perched on one high heel while the other foot held the door closed, all while holding my breath. When I was finished, I didn’t bother to force the door shut while I washed my hands. Just as I was making my way out to (blessed) fresh air, the door swung open. An old black man with a cane stood in front of me. Few times in my life have I seen a look of such utter terror.
He quickly diverted his eyes to the floor, scurried backwards, bowed in my direction and repeated, as if in prayer, “I’m sorry ma’am. Excuse me ma’am. Please forgive me ma’am.” I was startled but completely understood his mistake of opening the door with me still in there. I tried to explain that the doorknob was broken, but he just kept scurrying, bowing, and ma’am-ing me. I was dumbfounded. After all, he was probably older than my parents. He had a cane for god’s sake. I should have been referring to him as sir, not him to me as ma’am. And what the heck was all the bowing about?
My father and I hadn’t spoken for nine years when he died. I was hard-pressed to go to his hometown even when we were on speaking terms, so I certainly hadn’t been around those parts when we weren’t. The Civil Rights movement had made little progress there in the 1970’s of my childhood. And apparently the world had continued to move forward around it since then, rather like Jim Crow Brigadoon.
When I got back to the car, I told my mother what happened. She’d been gone from that place since she divorced my dad in the 70s, but even she knew the dynamic. She looked at me with both love and pity that the old man’s perspective on the situation had completely escaped me. She patiently explained that he was undoubtedly scared shitless that my husband or father was going to show up at his house that night and beat the hell out of him for walking in on me.
Nah, I thought. It’s nearly the twenty-first century. Could this place really still be so backward? I thought about going back into the store to explain to the man that I understood that it was an accident and that I had no husband or father. Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t let them harm him for an honest mistake. And then the man walked out of the store. Our eyes met, and he scurried off as fast as his cane would allow.
It’s been twelve years since that experience, but it still haunts me. I always thought it was because I wondered what horrible experiences in that old man’s life left him so terrorized. That’s true, but there was something else, too. As a feminist and person doing my best to face my role in racial inequity, I don’t expect a man to commit any violent act or intimidation in my name. That said, sitting in that gas station parking lot, having just seen my father buried, was the first time that I had to admit that it was no longer in my power to refuse my father’s ridiculously antiquated and twisted version of chivalry. He would no longer offer it. He was gone.