In three days, Michael* taught me a bunch of things about my life and his.
It was 2010, and I needed to sign 5000 books for Toys R Us. The timing was tricky -- we were in the midst of closing our book business and selling our assets to an outside company. “What's the easiest way for you to sign the books?” my new publisher asked. Two months earlier, I would have rallied our warehouse guys to help orchestrate the project. But I didn't have employees anymore — just a big building with lots of space.
“You can deliver them to my office,” I said. “And hire some temps for me.” They agreed.
The following week, I walked to my building to meet my team for the three-day book signing blitz.
On the front step I see a young black man sitting hunched over, his hoodie pulled tightly around his face. No car, motorcycle or bicycle seemingly belong to him. I instinctively feel unease and notice. I don't like noticing because my gut is telling me what I am ashamed to admit: I am feeling wary of this black man in a hoodie. “Can I help you?” I ask the downturned head.
“I'm here for a job,” he says, looking up.
“Oh!" I say, surprised. “That's for me. I'm Marianne.” I extend my hand, and we shake.
“I'm Michael,” he says.
“Nice to meet you Michael,” I reply.
“How did you get here?” I ask, gesturing to the empty lot.
“About five miles,” he says, not answering the where part.
This is none of my business how he got here. He's here on time for a job.
I unlock the front door, talking over my shoulder, “I'm still waiting for two others.“ Within minutes, they show, and here we are: Me, two black guys. And one white guy.
I'm not gonna lie. It feels weird and uncomfortable. I'm feeling my white-ness and this truth: I haven't hung out with black guys much. Not growing up (except for the two black girls integrated into our elementary school from downtown Milwaukee). Not in my current social circle. Not at work. Not in our neighborhood. Not in our community which is 85% white. Apparently I am not alone.
Will we find things to talk about? Will we get each other? That I'm making this about my own comfort is insightful. We four have gathered to do a job together and race or gender is simply irrelevant.
The task IS big. They need to unpack hundreds of boxes of books, stack them on tables for me to sign, add stickers to the front and backs of the books, then re-pack and tape the boxes in preparation to load everything onto a semi trailer that will show up at my building in three days.
The first hour is awkward as we all start to work side by side, trying to figure out a sensible work flow. Michael calls me "Miss Marianne" and the others follow suit.
“You don't need to call me that,” I tell him. “Marianne is fine.”
“No, Miss Marianne,” Michael says, “you made these books and because of you, I get to make some money today.”
I'm suddenly aware that all my books have white kids on the cover and I wonder what Michael thinks of that. I ask him.
“It's usually like that,” he says.
I want to know more. And so while I sign book after book after book, I start asking questions. Who are these men? What are their stories? Over the course of three days and 5000 books, this is what I learn:
• Michael hasn't seen his mom in a long time, so he hopped a bus to Minneapolis with the clothes on his back to find his dad who supposedly lived here. He found him and lived with him for awhile ... until he didn't.
• He's expecting a baby with this girlfriend in a few months and is feeling the pressure to provide. So he's working every job he can.
• It's hard being a black guy. Michael and Charlie* tell me stories of people walking to the other side of the street when they see a black guy coming.
Timothy* (aka other white person) and I are surprised. They assure me they're used to it.
• Michael tells me a waiter once spit in his food before serving it to him.
Timothy (aka other white person) and I are aghast. Charlie shrugs it off with a “shit happens” nonchalance.
• They think I am so very white and don't understand half of what they experience.
They are right.
• Michael wants to teach “Miss Marianne” to “talk black.” So he tells me that instead of telling my kids to “be quiet,” I should tell them to , “Pump. Their. Brakes.” He teaches me how to say it. The exact inflections I should use.
We practice over and over together and the four of us laugh at the white girl trying to talk black. They tell me I'm getting better, and it's a proud moment for me.
We talk, share, and laugh for three days. We talk about prejudice and race. We talk about parents. Kids. Wanting them. Having them. Raising them. We talk about my business that was and now isn't. We talk about making a living — the challenges and rewards. We talk about life. At the end of our three days, as we pack the last box onto the semi-trailer pulled into my dock, I feel sad about saying goodbye to my team. I know we likely won't see each other again. But I know we were meant to be together in this place in time, no matter how brief. There were things I needed to learn about myself that they taught me in kind, honest ways. And hopefully I've left them with something, too.
I sign a copy of I Love You So Much for Michael's new baby (my one book with black people on the cover). I am changed because of them. Our conversations shocked me at times, humbled and embarrassed me at others — and prompted me to re-examine my own beliefs, prejudice and assumptions.
I learned this too: We all want the same things in life: family, security, love, empathy respect, understanding and opportunity. What it looks like and how we get it is different because of the way the world is. But we have lots to teach one another if we're open and willing to listen without judgement.
Charlie and Timothy get in their cars, waving to me as they turn the corner.
Michael stands next to me. “Thanks for the work, Miss Marianne,” he says.
“You're welcome, Michael,” I reply. “Thanks so much for your help.”
We hug. I really, really like him.
He walks down the front step where he and I first met and turns right, walking five miles to somewhere.
The Heart of the Matter: Keep your heart open longer than what feels comfortable because that's when change can begin.
p.s. Six years later, I still tell my kids to Pump. Their. Brakes. Thanks Michael, wherever you are. :)
* names changed.