A Sad and Racist Incident in Rochester, New Hampshire

New Hampshire is an interesting state. Rumor has it that most Americans outside of New England have never heard of it. I don’t know if I believe that rumor, in part because it’s alarming to consider: are we really the most irrelevant of the fifty states, on a par with West Virginia or Wyoming? Then again, I’m sure the residents of those states ask themselves the same question. Well, one difference between those two and New Hampshire is that the Granite State is so unpredictable politically. It’s hard to call it purple when it’s really just a blur. Take a look at the presidential primaries in 2016: Bernie blasted Clinton by twenty-two points, and Trump topped his closest competitors by twenty.

Perhaps the inconsistency can be attributed to the absence of a consistent definition of what life in New Hampshire is. Roll through the mountains and you will find upper-middle-class people living in deliberate isolation, and there are just as many wealthy yahoos hiding in their cottages on Lake Winnipesaukee. But crawl within the bowels of Laconia or Manchester and you will find all sorts of people trapped in living hell, hiding within their apartments so the cops don’t find out about the heroin hidden in the bedroom. The imaginative dissonance in New Hampshire is a fluid illustration of the perceptual contrasts Howard Zinn described in A People’s History: when we think about the Roaring Twenties, we don’t think about kids succumbing to tuberculosis or war protesters rotting in prison.

Of course, I don’t pretend to know how many of New Hampshire’s desperate drug addicts voted, never mind for whom. It’s possible that this had nothing to do with it, anyway, although President Trump seemed to feel differently when he informed the President of Mexico that the Granite State is a “drug-infested den”. Notwithstanding the obvious questions of tact, I invite everyone to drive through the back streets of Manchester, Nashua, and Tilton—or even the main streets of Laconia—and tell me if Trump’s comment was completely baseless. There’s a lot of suffering going on out here, especially in the winter, when those drug users have to think about how they’re going to pay their rent.

Housing is an interesting problem in New Hampshire. We still have no sales tax, so word around the campfire is that the state collects its revenue through its property taxes. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but I know I pay quite a bit in escrow, and the only reason I own my place is because renting an apartment in this state is insane. When I was eighteen, I rented my first apartment in downtown Laconia for $500 a month, plus electricity; nine years later, you can’t even find a studio apartment for the same rate. Your best bet is to move in with your girlfriend, even if you two aren’t ready to take that step, but if you’re terminally single, like I am, then you’re gonna have to put an ad on Craigslist and hope for the best.

Concord is notoriously scarce on affordable apartments for high-school graduates and college kids, which is why so many of them have fled to Manchester, where work and drugs are more abundant. It’s very strange, the city of Concord’s obsessive promotion of its own prestigious image, its self-characterization as a haven of doctors and lawyers and politicians. You can ignore the homeless people loitering outside the capitol, if you’d like, although it’s a lot easier to ignore the women’s prison that just opened up on North State Street, replacing the older facility in Goffstown. I wonder where they expect the ex-cons to go, now that they’ve demolished that large flop house on Warren Street. It probably won’t be long before yours truly visits the halfway house and offers a room to rent. I tried that once, actually: I had a fascinating conversation about an inmate who couldn’t speak English, but who was just wrapping up a twenty-seven-year term for lewd behavior.

Economics are not the only factor in the Great New Hampshire Divide. Racism is another, and one that is becoming more conspicuous as the country and, subsequently, the state grow more diverse. See, racism is really convoluted in New Hampshire: it isn’t something we’re accustomed to talking about, in part because we’re almost as ethnically homogenous as North Korea. The Granite State is ninety-four percent white, which is staggering: if you live your entire life in Coos County, then you really might go to your grave without seeing a single colored person in the flesh. The benefit to this monochromatic landscape is that you seldom have to ask if race relations are a problem in your state. “What’s that? Racist us? Bah, what poppycock! We never have any interracial problems here! No interracial violence, nothing of that sort! What? No, I can’t remember the last time I saw a colored person, but that’s beside the point. The point is, we don’t have any visible conflicts of that sort here, so New Hampshire must be a colorblind state.”

All jokes aside, that actually approximates the mentality of the average New Hampshirite—or at least it would have, four years ago, when racism wasn’t a daily topic of conversation for us. Back then, it was easy enough to assume that we didn’t have a problem with racism because we didn’t have any immediate evidence of such. It’s a classical logical fallacy, assuming that the absence of something is the presence of something else. “I know I’m a good person because I haven’t broken the law,” etc. As long as you’re not seeing any evidence of “the problem”, it’s easy enough to say, “Nope, nothing wrong here.”

I won’t lie to you: I used to think that way. I remember being absolutely puzzled in 2016, when a black coworker told me that New Hampshire and Arizona are believed to be the two most racist states. However, I was puzzled only for a moment, before I remembered that New Hampshire and Arizona were the final states to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I’m pretty sure Arizona did so only after they lost their claim to host a Super Bowl because of it. Can you imagine the NFL taking that kind of progressive stance today? Forget about Colin Kaepernick; you’re talking about the Super Bowl!

Well, an awful lot has happened since that Super Bowl was played twenty-six years ago, and now, racism is not an obscure topic of conversation in New Hampshire. We might not discuss it as often as it’s discussed elsewhere in the country, but we do discuss it. Recently, the Union Leader printed yet another story about the rising disconcertment among “state developers” that New Hampshire is failing to attract young, colored people from elsewhere in the country. The young, colored people just don’t want to move here. Is it because it’s too cold? Is it because rent’s too expensive? Or is it because New Hampshire is just as racist as Arizona, where at least the weather is more agreeable?

Probably, it’s a combination of the three. I still believe that New Hampshire is less racist than my former coworker suggested, but that element of racial homogeneity, that fallacy of the absence of a thing, resurfaces in my thoughts from time to time. You can be damned sure that it resurfaced on Sunday, when I travelled to Rochester to do a little bit of political research.

For those outside the know, Rochester ain’t too much rosier than any of those cities I was trashing earlier in this essay. It’s probably not the worst of the bunch, but it’s certainly not a fun town; it’s a working town, a hard town, a town that has been rattled by the eruptions on Wall Street lo these many years. It hasn’t been hit nearly as brutally as Laconia, but it could be disfigured permanently if and when the stock market crashes again. Wandering through Rochester, you get the sense that you are walking on streets that were built on borrowed time, that this place may be unrecognizable to your own children, and almost certainly to your grandchildren. We are living in the calm before the storm, and it’s only a matter of time before the first rains fall.

Perhaps the downpour approaches sooner than we think. Such, at least, appeared to be the case on Sunday morning, when I rolled into town much earlier than I’d intended. Seeking out a café where I could read Faulkner in peace before the work began, I settled on a Dunkin’ Donuts, just a couple of miles away from the Lilac Mall. I took my place in line, behind a middle-aged man and a woman in her thirties, just like me.

I opened my book and started to read, hoping to make some progress in As I Lay Dying, which I’d very little time to read the previous day. I was trying to pay attention to the Bundren family’s effort to cross the flooded bridge, so I didn’t immediately realize that the two customers before me were complaining about how long they had been standing in line. For the record, I don’t think that they were standing in line for long, but even if they had, it was obviously because it was fairly early on a Sunday morning, a peak time for people to seek out coffee and donuts and stuff. It had nothing to do with inadequate service, although that didn’t stop my fellow patrons from imagining all sorts of malice.

“This place is always incredibly fucking slow,” the man said. “I look behind the counter and there are two, three, four, five different employees standing there, texting, doing anything other than helping the fucking customers.” He must have been looking behind a different counter than I was, because not a single one of the employees was doing anything of the sort. Everyone was working, including the young black girl who, as far as I could see, was the only one available to help people at the counter. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop the man before me from hallucinating. The one thing I couldn’t be sure of was whether the woman standing in line nodded at him because she shared his delusions, or if she simply didn’t want to incur his wrath, as well.

I didn’t bother to correct him. I remembered another occasion at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Gilford, when I tried to explain to a group of irate customers that the girls behind the counter were doing the best they could. I didn’t have much success, and none of those morons in Gilford seemed to be as fanatical as this imbecile in front of me. Accordingly, I returned to my book, slightly concerned that I would soon read about a drowning horse, or something. I don’t like violence against animals, you see, in no small part because they can’t understand what is happening to them. There is nothing I despise more than the needless suffering of the defenseless, which is why what happened next in the store has bothered me for days.

When the woman left, the man behind her took his spot at the front of the line. He ordered a coffee and two donuts, which he asked to be placed in two separate bags. The black server prepared his coffee and then proceeded to collect the donuts, which she almost placed in the same bag, but she recognized her error “in time”, and she placed the donuts in separate bags. Unfortunately, the near-mistake or non-mistake was too outrageous for the customer to withstand, and so, he shouted:

“What did I tell you? I specifically told you to put those donuts in two separate bags!”

“And I did that,” she replied, smiling in a hopeless attempt to calm him down.

“But you almost didn’t!”

“But then I did, and if I had messed it up, I would have gotten you two new donuts.”

“And would you have noticed it if I hadn’t said anything?”

“Well, I did notice it, and the donuts are in two separate bags, so, I mean . . .”

“Yeah, that’s typical,” he said as he collected his purchase. “That’s really fucking typical.”

“Yes,” she said. “I guess it is typical.”

“That’s typical fucking niggers!” he shouted as he turned away.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to describe adequately the embarrassment that overcame me in that moment. I was embarrassed, not only for the pathetic inexplicability of his non-sequitur, but for the man personally, for the man as a man, because he didn’t have the minimal courage required to face the girl as she shouted after him: “Oh, you call people niggers? That’s embarrassing! That’s embarrassing!” I say “courage” deliberately, because he scurried out of the store, his chubby legs shaking with his terrified speed. This man was too scared to come back and face the young woman he had just insulted with the most random and irrelevant insult in the book, and he hopped into his truck as quickly as he could, peeling out of the parking lot before someone, anyone, confronted him. Off he went, he with his coffee and his donuts in the separate bags, off to whatever important appointment awaited him.

Perhaps you are wondering why I didn’t scream at him, why I didn’t chase him into the parking lot and smash his truck, why I didn’t take my hardcover copy of Faulkner to deliver a good crack on the back of his neck. Well, I’ve asked myself the same questions for the last few days. I asked myself those same questions at the time: as he ran away from the counter, I really did think about taking my book and smacking him in the face. He would have gone down, for sure, being caught off-guard by the sudden pain, and once he was on the floor, it would have been easy enough for me to overpower him, to pour his coffee in his face, maybe to stomp on his groin.

Yeah, all of it sounds really lovely, doesn’t it? Maybe he would have hit his head on the floor and suffered internal bleeding. Maybe he would have broken his neck. In either scenario, he would go to the hospital, and I would go to jail, where I would be lucky to get off with a six-month sentence. Or maybe he would have taken out his gun, fired three rounds into my stomach, then turn his rage on the server and give her the other three. I thought about this when I was standing in line, and that is why I didn’t say anything. You can say I stood silently out of cowardice, and I suppose I would have to say you’re right, but what am I supposed to do? I’m not Batman. I’m not Jason Bourne. I would love nothing more than to play the part of the superhero, standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, but I lack the physicality.

“All right,” the girl shouted as she walked away from the counter. “I need to take a break. I just got called a nigger. That was fucking ridiculous.”

At that moment, I realized that this server was not incapable of standing up for herself. She had stood up for herself. She had told that man off, told him that his methods were embarrassing, and she had done so without knowing for sure that he didn’t have a gun. Obviously, she had a lot more courage than I did, and she didn’t need anyone to defend her. She had pride, which is much more than you can say for the racist idiot who rushed out the door, too petrified to face a girl less than one-third his age, and probably less than one-third his weight.

But I was embarrassed. I was deeply embarrassed, not just because of what that man said, but for my own failure to say anything to him. I actually turned away from the counter and looked toward the windows, my sense of humiliation threatening to drown me. I knew that there was no way in hell I could ask that girl to get me coffee, not after I had stood silently while some piggish person had delivered to her the most pathetic insult imaginable. So, I walked out of the store, the putrid man long since gone, but the coward still remaining.

Across the street, I saw a Walgreens. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to cross the street and go inside. Of course, before I reached the entrance, I knew what I was doing: I was trying to find something for that girl behind the counter. I knew that I couldn’t throw dollars at what happened, any more than I could buy back my own backbone, but I thought that maybe I could find something to try to, I don’t know, bridge the gap, the gap that had been driven into whatever fabric comprises human existence by the obsessive-compulsive psychotic who insisted on having his donuts in two different bags.

After roaming the aisles, I came across the collection of gift cards, and I found one that I was sure anyone could use. So, I bought it for her. I put $50 on it—again, not because I thought that I could put a price tag on what had happened, but because, well, fuck: I didn’t know what else I could do. I wanted to make this girl happy, to ease at least some of the pain that had come with that pointless scene, and this was the only way I knew how, the only way that I could see myself reaching out to her with more than just a series of hollow platitudes, you know? So, I purchased the gift card and returned to Dunkin’ Donuts.

She was standing in the parking lot, nearby the dumpsters, talking to someone on the phone. “I’ve never been called a nigger in my entire life!” she said. Then she noticed me standing awkwardly a few feet away from her. She paused, and then I said:

“Sorry I didn’t say anything. He seemed like he would have gotten violent, if I had. I want you to have this, okay?”

I handed her the gift card, and she didn’t really know what to say. She tried to thank me, but I felt really awkward, so I went back into the store, ordered a coffee and a donut, and sat down to read some more of Faulkner. A little while later, she came into the shop and started sweeping the floor. She noticed me sitting, and she came up and said to me:

“Thank you again for what you did. That turned it around, like really. Like, after that, I started feeling differently.”

I told her that she was more than welcome, and that I still felt like a loser for having said nothing when it happened.

“No, you’re right: it’s better not to say anything. I mean, you don’t know if he’s got a weapon, or something.”
Then she smiled at me and told me her name. I gave her mine. And now, I have no more to say.

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