You don't usually think of a cigar bar as a place where people have deep, meaningful conversations about society, humanity and race. I mean, it just doesn't fit with what one would expect. Now admittedly, I spend way too much time (and money) in cigar bars. And most of the time, we talk about sports and women and business. But that all changed today.
I sat down at the bar to smoke a cigar and wound up having a conversation with a guy named Gary. Gary is maybe fifty years old. Italian from a big Catholic family in North Jersey. Works in sales. Sports Center was on the tv at the bar. So me and Gary, we talked about sports. We talked about the Knicks, and how they're the team nobody wants to play in playoffs. We talked about the Jets and the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. And then, somehow, we started talking about Travon Martin and George Zimmerman. And we both agreed that the case would never have garnered any national media attention if they had just arrested the guy, gave the case to a grand jury and just followed standard procedure. And then we started talking about race.
Gary's folks were racist. He says that his father was the biggest racist ever, with the exception of his mother. And he was raised that way, and for a while, he accepted that--- but it never made sense to him.
Then he was in the service for five years. He had a sergeant who was black. The guy was a real leader who looked out for all his men. The kind of guy who, when you got down, he would come and pick you up, put his arm around your shoulder and really help you out. He said the service changed his views on race, because everyone - regardless of color - was his brother.
And then time went on. And he wasn't racist like his folks had been. But still, in the back of his mind, he couldn't entirely shake some of those thoughts and feelings. He could slip into thinking like that on occasion -- unconsciously falling back into how he was raised, thinking like a racist, like his parents had taught him.
And that it happened. It was September 11, 2001. He was walking down the street in North Jersey. It was just hours after the attacks. And Gary walked past this big, black guy. He says he'll never forget it. Walking down the sidewalk, and this big black guy walks by, a black guy, wearing jeans and a tee shirt. And the guy looked scared and confused and he had a tear coming down his cheek. And Gary stopped. And him and this big black guy just looked at each other, and they both just shook their heads, trying to take in what had happened that morning. And then Gary gave the guy a hug. And he said, "We're all in this together man. It's going to be ok."
That moment, Gary said, changed him for ever. He just couldn't be racist after that. He couldn't think like that. He couldn't hate people like that. Because he realized we're all the same; we're all in this together.
There is, to be sure, great evil and wickedness in the world. But there is also great humanity and understanding and compassion. And there are revelations and moments of great wonder even in the strangest places, like cigar bars.