Friday, February 20, 2015

As Plain as Black and White

Although it is no longer my obligation, after decades of customer service experience it is second nature to identify a person’s need and see if you can help.  I may be cleaning the building, but while wearing the library crest, people will respond to a gentle question, such as, “Can I help you find something?”

The willingness to do that helped me get my position at the library, as a practitioner of the custodial arts.  They wanted people that would be willing to reach out to patrons that seemed otherwise lost.  For years, the plan worked without a hitch…until last winter.  Yep, I was identified as a racist.

I was doing the last rounds on the building before I went home for the day, a quick check of the facilities to make sure that there were no shortages in supplies or messes that needed immediate attention.  I was minutes from punching out when I noticed a woman bent over an unresponsive water fountain.  The fountain was equipped with motion sensors that would cause the water to flow when there was a sustained change in color…except for black.  When the sensors see black, they assume that the library is in darkness (as it would be after closing time) and do not send a signal to the spigot.

I was just trying to help.  From ten feet away, as I scanned the lady’s restroom for problems, I blurted out, “The water fountain doesn’t see black.”  When the thirsty soul turned around to face me, my blood turned to ice.  The woman in question was African-American, the lines on her cheeks telling me she was at least old enough to remember when there were separate water fountains for blacks and whites.  The lines around her squinty eyes asked, “What did you just say?”

I knew I’d meant no harm.  I charged ahead, hoping my confidence equaled wisdom.  “Your jacket,” I elaborated.  “It’s black.  The sensors think that it’s dark in the library, so…”

She cupped her hand in front of her mouth, stifling a giggle.  Waving a cocoa-colored hand in front of the sensor, the water gushed in a high arc.  Once she had drank her fill, she walked past me with just a finger in my direction, not a middle one, just an index pointer to say, “Yeah, I got you.”

For weeks after our initial contact, we passed each other in the library with just a nod or a wink in greeting.  It was more than a month later when she stopped me with a hand on my forearm, thanking me for the softer tissue that had been placed in the rest rooms.  I hadn’t had time to thank her for the compliment before she walked right by, saying in her wake, “You didn’t think I’d notice, did you?”

A week later, she told me that the bulbs in the ceiling above her favored reading spot had gone dim.  I let my boss know immediately.  Although the problem was a ballast and not a bulb, we fixed the outage in short order, restoring my new acquaintance to full light.

She and I are not friends…we still do not know the other’s name.  But we both are aware that sometimes, words don’t come out right…and that doesn’t make us racist.  It makes us human.

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