Five strangers walked into a bar on last Friday night.
Actually, let me backup first. Jerry was, apparently, my neighbor. I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Mt. Vernon in Baltimore City. Jerry lived on the third floor, until he died in his apartment, inside our building on East Read Street.
Few of us knew him and according to his family, Jerry lived a pretty private life. It is actually more accurate to say none, or few, of us knew him until we began to smell his decomposing body. It was a mild smell at first, one that tenants on the third floor would most notice. Sinmi, my new friend thanks to the late, Jerry, states she made her first call to American Management on February 26th, requesting someone to come take a look, or a sniff. Mind you, she made the call on February 26th, meaning this smell had gotten to a point of concern. American Management said they would send someone out.
However, it wasn’t until March 5th that Jerry’s decomposed body was recovered from his apartment on the third floor. Seven days after Sinmi’s first request for action, an additional week that this man’s body was laying in his apartment decomposing beyond the time it could not be detected from the hallway by neighbors like Sinmi. At work, I’m required to respond to my emails within 48 hours, pretty typical protocol. One would hope that an apartment leasing company would have at least slightly similar requirements when a complaint about a foul, death-like smell was made? Maybe respond to that within 48 hours? In a place where people actually reside? Maybe?
We can still smell it in the elevator. And, unsurprisingly, by March 5th the smell had traveled to the fifth floor. In this article from The Baltimore Sun from March 7th, American Management claims that, “death happens.” They claim, “We checked it out, we didn’t find any smell. There was no cause for concern.”
So, Simni and Glen organized and mobilized. Nine people gathered together on a Friday evening at 7:30 for a candle lit vigil to pay respects to Jerry’s life. His family wasn’t able to attend, but they provided us with a handwritten note stating “God Bless you All! For caring!” and hung a couple pictures of Jerry. We lit candles and took some time to share what we knew about Jerry (very little). Then, five out of the nine of us decided to walk over to Spirits for a glass of wine and to get to know each other a little.
Five strangers walked into a bar. It is the beginning of a bad joke, and a night that would turn into something both awful and beautiful in its own very weird way.
Because it’s important to this story let me describe the racial makeup of this group. I am sorry, Derek, but I am going to categorize us as simply “white” or “black.” I know there is so much more to each of us, but… I’m doing it. Two white women (including me) two black men, and one black woman.
Glen (black man) walked up to the bar and ordered a glass of wine. The bartender poured it and then slid it down the bar four feet to the cash register, telling him he could pick it up when he paid. Sinmi (black woman) ordered a glass of wine, same thing. Glass of wine is poured and slid down to the cash register. “Okay,” I think, “Is this the method they use here?” trying to be optimistic. I went next.
Wine poured. The bartender extended her hand and my glass of wine, smiling as she passed it over to me.
We all exchanged glances and communicated “what the f***?” with our eyes.
Derek (black man) went next. Glass of wine poured and yet again, slid down the bar to the cash register where he can “pick it up when he pays.” At this moment, Derek and I looked at each other and without saying a word communicated, “Oh yea, this is happening. This is what we think it is.”
Kristen (white woman) went next, glass of wine poured and handed directly to her.
Having met one other approximately thirty minutes prior, at a candlelit vigil for our neighbor whose body had been decomposing in our building for weeks, we were all assessing how to respond to and handle this situation.
That hesitation did not last. We sat down and instantly jumped into a dialogue, completely forgoing small talk that might be expected of people who just met one other. We instantly called out the elephant in the room.
White people: Do me a favor and re-read that scenario. Take your ego out of it and tell me what just occurred.
After chatting over one glass of wine, we decided to leave. Sinmi, in all her beautiful, poised, bravery requested to have a private conversation with the owner. Sinmi described what was just experienced and the owner apologized, but in the same breath, and this is my summary of Simni’s recounting to us: “That wasn’t what was happening. I’ve known her for 12 years. I am a gay (white) woman and know what it is like to be discriminated against and would never put someone behind the bar that would act like that. Can you please take my word for it that, THAT wasn’t happening?”
So this woman was basically saying, to another human, “Please trust me that your experiences and what you are feeling did not happen because I have known this woman for 12 years and I, myself, am a gay woman?”
I was acutely aware of the body language of THE bartender who stood watching Sinmi like a hawk. She was outwardly scoffing and rolling her eyes. Hate and anger was flowing off of her. I also observed the owner of the restaurant doing far too much talking, while Sinmi empathetically and patiently nodded her head.
My fellow white people: Shut up and listen. Listen first. Listen to truly listen and hear, not to respond.
We exited the bar, adrenaline pumping, and decided to go somewhere else.
We spent the first thirty minutes or so at The Elephant being charmed by an 18 year old magician, who had been practicing magic for ten years. Sinmi leaned over and whispered to me, “This kid is brave to be so into magic at his age.” Which is true; he was unapologetically loving every moment of his magic trick performance. Kristen, unimpressed, and needing scientific backing for all things, challenged him, prompting laughs from both him and the audience.
The magic tricks had taken the edge off of the previous bar’s events and we all transitioned to a small side room with sofas and games to talk. Again, measly small talk that is often expected when people hang out for the first time was not even an option, as Glen asked thought-provoking question after question to us all, he reminded me to, “Keep it 100,” when asking about my biggest culture shock from coming from my rural, primarily white upbringing and to living in Baltimore City.
Derek spoke about culture shock related to west and east coast living and the tendency we, as humans (and I, in this piece) have done to simply put people in boxes of “white” or “black” when the reality is that we are so much more, he is so much more. He spoke about how this discounts other parts of his identity. As he spoke I thought and challenged myself in my own mind, knowing that this is an error I can sometimes make. Throughout the night, we were all vulnerable and real in our conversations, which just encouraged deeper vulnerability.
We had known each other for about and hour and a half at this point.
Sinmi got up to request a food menu. She walked into the main area to find THE Bartender and THE Bartender’s friend. She walked by and this grown ass woman who, I am guessing is in her 40s, extended her leg and kicked Sinmi in the thigh. Yes, kicked her.
Sinmi came back to our room and described what had just happened, clearly upset, while also showing incredible grace in this situation. Honestly, this woman was pure grace in all of her interactions.
Fast forward about fifteen minutes and Bartender and Bartender’s friend are in our little room in our faces screaming acusatorials at Sinmi. “What is your end game!? What is your end game!?!?” Neither woman was able to elaborate exactly what she meant by this when asked by Glen. Sinmi tried to speak and Bartender looked at her like she was a child, or an animal, and with her finger in her face said, “Shut up. I will get to you.” I tried to say something and her friend turned to me saying, “You. Shut the f*** up.”
So, in my mind at this point I was battling with a couple thoughts. 1.) I’m white, these people are white–what can I do to connect with them and help them see how they are wrong? 2.) How can I be most helpful right now? How can I use my voice, while also not out speaking Sinmi. This black woman, does not need this white woman speaking for her, but, how can I speak with her? How can I both face my own participation in whiteness while also challenging mind-sets and and people that prop up this whiteness? 3.) I found myself suddenly in the back and was standing idly behind Glen and Derek. I did not want to be passive in this. I aligned my body physically next to Sinmi, but also a step behind her. She has a voice and was using it, I didn’t need to speak over her, but I did want her to feel my physical support and let her know that bitches better believe I am ready to step in.
Bartender and Bartender’s friend were not listening to anything anyone is saying. Apparently Bartender’s friend is married to a black man. Yes, she shared that.
White people: Save your, “I have a black friend” comments. Good for you. Good for me. Do not respond to someone challenging or questioning your actions when it comes to race or white privilege with a resume type response of all the charitable work you do (which Bartender went into an extensive rant about) and how many black men (or women) you have dated. I’m watching these women do this and thinking “Good GOD, white people. What are we doing??”
Derek looked at us all and made a comment along the lines of, “These women must really hate themselves. Let’s take a moment and just feel for them.”
Drop the freaking mic.
My mind was taken to James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time, and a line in his book that I’ve grappling with for a while, “White people…have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
As these women were talking at us and not with us in any way, I was struck by how much hate and anger was coming off of them. That’s a miserable way to live.
We left. We chose to walk away without resolution, apology, or any sort of acknowledgment that Bartender and Bartender’s friend are blatantly wrong. We left because three out of five of us were black and think about it: There’s a crowd of people in the streets at midnight, profanities are flying, yelling, fingers waving in faces, (all of which primarily are coming from them) and if the cops showed up, who would be questioned first?
White people: What are you, we, me doing to learn how to accept and love ourselves and each other WHILE also acknowledging this whiteness that we are part of, that we participate in, and have benefited from? Then, and this is the important part, what are we doing to remove our egos, remove our defenses and link that to how a very intentional set of structures, systems, and institutions allows this privilege to continue? You are fabulous, I am fabulous, and we have benefited from our whiteness. We continue to benefit from our whiteness. Let’s love ourselves and each other while also honestly unpacking that privilege.
What if I told you that Sinmi was a white woman and Bartender is a black woman? Would it have been handled differently? Would you think about this woman being kicked as she walks through the bar differently?
The five of us: Derek, Sinmi, Kristen, Glen, and I walked the 0.1 miles home to our apartment building. We walked past the remnants of the small vigil for Jerry, whom we never really knew. Derek and I walked Sinmi, Kristen, and Glen to their doors on the third floor where we all hugged goodnight. Derek and I continued to the fifth floor where we, too, hug goodnight and retire to our apartments.
Five strangers walked into a bar, stir up some shit, acknowledge and address blatant racism, show incredible grace and love, ask questions and listen to each other, and then walk home as friends. Jerry, although we didn’t know you, your impact is still felt by the neighbors who rest their heads near where you rested yours one final time. Thank you, Jerry, for your patience, for these new friendships, for pushing us to face difficult conversations, and for one hell of a strange story.
Shar Hollingsworth is a radiant being. She grew up in Garrett County, Maryland, earned a BS in Psychology from Towson University and an MS in counseling psychology from Frostburg State University. She has worked as a mental health counselor, addiction counselor, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 27 months in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), located in Southern Africa. She moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a short time after her service and then to Baltimore where she works as the Scholar Support Coordinator at Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School. She enjoys time with her family, laughing loudly, reading, yoga, athletics of all kinds, snuggling with her cat Raffi, travel, humanity, and learning. Should you wish to comment on her story, you may reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, CC me (Amandy), I’m curious!