Thursday, May 27, 2010
Although I am reasonably sure that The Broadmoor doesn't actually flog employees when they make a mistake, the pretty blond woman in front of me was visibly shaking nonetheless. A ribbon pinned to the blazer of her uniform declared her to be "in training" and she had told us earlier that she had been there for two weeks. Sheila and I were quickly shaping up to be nightmare customers for anyone in the service industry as we attempted to check-in for our spa getaway. Oddly enough, we were trying our very best to be exceptionally pleasant. The young woman's distress being readily apparent, we only wanted to lessen it. I think that's what most people do, as most adult possess empathy.
"You left your credit card," the clerk said, in an accent I assume hailed from the Baltic states, as she handed over a sealed credit-card-sized envelope.
Every year at the start of the high season hospitality workers from all over the world land at the Broadmoor, many in pursuit of hotel management degrees. I've hit that window of training before, and although the service at the hotel is stellar, there are occasional stumbling blocks with the trainees. For whatever reason, we had been making this young woman perilously anxious since we'd appeared before her. I have no idea why, Sheila and I were actually two hours early for check-in, and knew it. That one of the rooms wasn't ready was rather to be expected, and far from pitching a fit, we'd both assured the clerk that it was fine that there would be a delay before my room was ready. She promised to call me when the room in question was prepared, and off we set, to tour the grounds on what was a beautiful day last week. The clerk had started shaking when she was unable to spell my rather straight-forward last name. It's generally my first name that plays merry hell with the ability of people to interpret it. However, when you think about it, for her it isn't usual, is it?
By the time we returned, the poor woman clapped delightedly when she saw us. Her joy was short-lived as the proffered credit card was actually not mine. There are a couple of things I've managed not to do in my life, although I've great faith in my own idiocy, and leaving behind my credit card happens to be one of them. So when I opened the envelope, it was with a flash of irritation directed towards myself, not the clerk. The Gold American Express card bore the name of Joe Somethingorotherski.
"This isn't mine," I said, and realized a fraction of a second too late that the young man next to the blond was evaluating her. A look of barely repressed anger flashed across his face, the blond began shaking again, and whereas I did everything I could to deflect that by making a rather large show of saying it was fine, checking my wallet and saying with relief that indeed my credit card was there and that Joe was not in possession of it, the anger persisted. In fact, I wasn't sure if I was making it better or worse, and again too late, decided to shut up before the manager beside her stuffed the woman in a larger envelope and shipped her home.
We had a lovely time, ate great food, were pampered at the spa, and came home relaxed, and ready for more of the same. That's exactly how the weekend played out, but Monday contained something different. Something we seldom talk about because approaching the subject is a sticky proposition.
I have long since known that my ethnicity is a question for some. Anyone who reads here regularly likely knows that I am actually a rather bland mix of Scottish, English, and German. There may have been a swarthy milkman somewhere in my genetic past, but I doubt it. It was just a genetic fluke that I inherited my Scottish mother's exceptionally pale skin, combined with my father's dark-brown-nearly-black hair. If you've a burning desire to know what I'm talking about, please feel free to check this post for a closeup of my avatar picture.
From the nice Norwegian man who declared that I couldn't be American because I spoke English too well, to the woman at the auto-mechanic's who asked me where I was from when standing next to a Pakistani friend, because "you have such beautiful skin" and then was visibly shocked when I replied, "New Jersey...oh! Scottish, that's the origin of the pale skin." my perceived ethnicity tends to be influenced by the context within which it is viewed. It's no coincidence that when hanging out with a Japanese friend I'm frequently mistaken for being part Asian myself. Although most of my ancestry is decidedly WASPish, I tend to trip the "Otherness" meter for some. The most common question does have to do with being somehow Asian. People from India ask me if I'm part Indian, people from Iowa sometimes assume that I must have a more exotic mixture somewhere within me. It used to be more frequent, back when I wasn't covering up any gray, and my natural hair color is actually a shade darker.
It had been an odd, but pleasant day. Sheila had to attend a conference in town, and would be checking into her hotel on Monday evening, before flying out again on Wednesday. She's not from Colorado, and therefore I wanted to make sure she had a chance to see one of the more impressive sights in the state: The High Plains. Climbing up through the Rockies, heading towards Breckenridge on 285 you round a bend and there they are. Vast beyond the telling of it, incredibly beautiful, and incongruous considering that the elevation is close to 12 thousand feet.
Of course, there were some challenges. We've been having insanely high winds, and we were accompanied by the sound of wind howling throughout. Just as we reached the plains, a small snow squall descended, plunging temperatures and proving that the old, "If you don't like the weather in Colorado, wait a minute." tends to be true. Breckenridge turned out to be having some extensive road work done on their main street, so we decided to have lunch back in Fairplay, on our way back down the mountains.
Fairplay has exactly two claims to fame, and one of them is only mine. That's the town I drove to pick up my dog Puddles, and it is also the town upon which the creators of South Park based their show. It's not big, or impressive, but it's there, and it has two readily accessible restaurants. We stopped at a cafe, hungry, wind blown, slightly chilled and in the middle of their smallish lunch rush.
The food was neither good or bad, simply filling and welcome for that. At first we both admired the rustic interior, the mountain-ambiance, and the low ceiling to keep in the warmth, hold out the cold. By the end of the meal we were both glad to be shut of the place as one patron there was attempting to kill us both dead with the power of her stony stare. Unfortunately she had plenty of company in that endeavor.
She was an older woman, and from the moment we walked in, she had a new hobby: giving us the hairy eyeball. The stink-eye. An uninterrupted, affronted concentration of disapproval. What was worse was that as we sat, the cafe filled up. There was no waiting area, the waiting diners lined the walls, and three other people joined in staring in as unfriendly a fashion as possible at our booth. We weren't the only out-of-towners there. It was apparent that there were several other people thwarted by the construction in Breckenridge. The hostess hollered at people to get out of the way of the kitchen, and as locals joined the waiting throng, more unfriendly stares joined the older woman's. It was bizarre, they barely gave it a break. On the rare occasion that I looked up and She-of-the-Stony Glare was actually engaged in eating, I needed only to move my gaze a fraction before I found somebody else had taken her staring place.
For once in my life I was cowed into silence. I know how unlikely that seems, but at that point I had only one hope, that we could get the hell out of there before Sheila noticed the seething stares around us. Sheila's Filipino. Although born in the U.S. and as much a citizen as I am, with a Masters in French Literature to boot, I knew exactly why we were on the receiving end of the death glares.
As we left, the woman who had started the glare fest was departing before us. Evidently only aware that there was someone behind her in the doorway, she held the door open, and I had a moment of hope. When I thanked her, and she saw who she was holding the door for, that woman yanked her hand away as if the door handle was red hot.
Of course it turned out that Sheila had been well aware of what was going on. When we got to the car she mentioned wanting to get out of there, a feeling I shared.
Every other time in my life when someone has clearly questioned my ethnicity it has been in a friendly fashion. An attempt at inclusion by the people who have asked me if one of my parents are Indian. A simple curiosity from the people who have assumed that somewhere in my veins runs a tie to another land. It was the first time in my life I had experienced hostility. When Sheila brought that up, I said, "Well, that wouldn't explain why they were staring at me, I'm about the whitest person most people have ever seen." indicating my skin color, but my eye color and hair color have raised questions before, and I knew. I think my friend did too.
There is something ugly happening in American. A reemergence of overt racism. Jan Brewer passes into law things in Arizona that will have people within the United States forced to present their papers. A person running for Governor in the South declares that one of his goals is to have the driver's license exam given in English only. People protesting actions taken by the president carry signs depicting him in the most outrageous of racial terms. We all know this to be true.
I set out to show my friend what great beauty my state contains, and accidentally showed her the ugliness that can exist side-by-side with that.
I'm not sure what can be done about this, but we have to admit it is happening. We have to have the bravery to have the conversations. To bring up the subject. To admit that this cancer still thrives within our borders. It may have been in remission, but that is no longer the case.
Do you know why I tried to divert Sheila from believing the Cafe patrons had been staring at us due to racial factors? I didn't know what else to do.
This post is an attempt to rectify that. I knew, Sheila knew. It was such an ugly thing, I wanted to look away from it. Pretend it wasn't there, pretend it could have been anything else. It was my turn to be shaken. I was the hospitality ambassador worrying that the guest I was caring for would be having a less than optimal stay. I wanted so much for it to be anything other than what it was, that I tried to pretend it could have been.
Therein lies the road to ruin if we continue to let this grow. This isn't really about what happened in a roadside cafe in an almost absurdly small town. I should have glared back. I should have stared that first woman down. I'm actually quite good at that.
I didn't because more than anything I wanted to believe that I was mistaken. That it wasn't happening. That in 2010, we were simply better than that by now.
It's one time. One occurrence, right? Does it really matter?
As much as I want to say that it does not, I fear that it really does.