The N-Word: It's not just for Huck Finn Anymore

Monday, January 21, 2013 | 2 Comment(s)

When you start a shift at the bar, the first hour is always a bit touch and go.  You have to adjust to the pace, the music, the lighting, and, of course, the people.  If you are lucky, their is a lull in service, and you can more quickly transition into the space.  That said, there is very rarely a completely empty bar to hand off.

This thursday, i was lucky enough to roll into a fairly tame scene around 6pm at night.  There were a few people here and there, but for the most part, it seemed the passing of the torch would be mostly uneventful.  With one exception.  There was a women by herself at the bar drinking and talking at an accelerating clip.   She was a light skinned black women with a recognizably African accent.  Her running self monologue had the tone and energy of a person "feeling the holy spirit" in church.  She was joyous, boisterous, and right on the line between happy and drunk.  This is the perfect time to play "get to know your bar clientele."

The closer you get to having to make a decision about whether or not to continue serving a person drinks, the more and more you want to try and understand their situation.   Where are they coming from?  How are they getting where they are going next?  Can they carry on a semi-normal conversation with you? All of these things factor in.

I say hello and ask how she is.  She lights up at the prospect of a direct (indirect?) object for her speech.   She continues.  She tells me she's from Kenya.  She can have a semi-cogent conversation, though admittedly, her accent combined with the volume of the music makes it fairly difficult to understand every word.  She continues talking . . . and talking . . . and i realize that i now have to remove myself from her, so as to help other customers and avoid falling into a situation where she is monopolizing all of my time.

I leave to go grab a coworker a beer and stop to chat with him for a moment.

"Excuse me."   "EXCUSE me."   "EXCUSE ME!"  Her accelerating calls for my attention begin to spin our relationship in the wrong direction.   I move to pacify my guest.

She continues, "Have you ever read Huck Finn?"

Me: You called me over here just to ask me that?

Her: (completely unfazed) Yes.

Me: Yes, I've read it.

Her: isn't it, like, sooooo gooood!!!

Me:  It IS a classic

Her:  It's all n*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r, n*gg*r.  It's so real. So good. 

She definitely rattled off the n word exactly 7 times.  I remember that kind of stuff really well.  You know, stuff that completely appalls me in a public space -- especially one where it is my job to protect the spaces integrity.

Me:  I'm not sure THAT is the reason i see it as a classic . . . but it is a good book.

I continue.

Me: Also, i would really prefer if you wouldn't use the n-word at my bar.  Especially over and over again.  Yes, even when talking about Huck Finn. 

She was sorry.  I will say that.  Thank goodness.  When a white person asks a black person not to use the n-word, it's implicitly a bit awkward.  It feels somewhat backward, like a child parenting their mother or father or -- more adorably -- like watching one of those YouTube videos about a pair of predator/prey animals that are true best friends.

I walk away at this point to grab this woman some water.  To me,  if you've put enough alcohol inside you to roll off a litany of n-bombs completely unselfconsciously (especially in friggin Amherst, MA), that is the very tip-top of "the legal limit".  Realizing this, i go and pour this woman a glass of water.

Her: Is this Amherst water??? (the 3 question marks denote the attitude and skepticism that were part and parcel of her tone in asking this question).

Me: Yes, and we additionally filter it.

Her: Nope.  No way.  Never.  Never.  I won't drink that stuff (she pushes the water i gave her away and toward the front of the bar).  She is strongly insinuating that our water is "not good".

For some reason, this is where i snap.  Potentially it's her constant stream of words that declared "I am right and I am still talking" (get a blog if you feel that way - sheesh) which just continued on for too long.   More likely, having a best friend who has dedicated a good portion of his life to living in Kenya and Tanzania researching and implementing the best practices for both increasing the overall water safety in the region (eliminating worms and other bacteria that flourish in polluted water sources), as well as creating solutions for easier access to clean water supplies nationwide.  Many families still walk miles in both directions just to bring water home for their family.   I know all of this information and I simply can't ignore it.  I mini-snap.

Me:  (i would say my tone was aggressive talking)  You are telling me that you are from KENYA, and you simply won't touch OUR water.  You are from a country that has been historically polluted and screwed over, causing nationwide infections and death, and yet our double-filtered water is just too scary a roll of the dice for you to risk it.  Come on!

This response of mine did the trick.  We had jumped the shark of her crazy and were heading down "sobering-up lane" toward bedtimesville.  Things tapered out from there.  I spent a bit less time babysitting her, and she started closing up shop.

I couldn't resist tweeting out:  "Still in the first hour of my shift and I've already had to ask the black woman at the bar not to use the n word.  repeatedly.  even when talking about Huck Finn.  Should be an interesting night . . ."

These are life lessons folks.  Soak it in.