Poem: Twenty Minutes in the Diner

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Twenty Minutes in the Diner

You sit at the outdoor table with coffee, listening
to the chatter of people angry, afraid, confused,
eating their eggs and bacon unaware
of the enemies at the next table, too consumed
in their personal passions to hear another’s,
or even know they exist, arms flailing, eyes burning,
stories spilled that are personal or hearsay,
unfiltered by any search for truth,
far more convenient, far easier to hear only
what is already believed.

There is a breeze. The theory is the wind
will bear away the dark poison,
it will keep us safe as we sit just far enough from each other.
But there is no safety. Always we are upwind
or downwind from the infection, from the words, that,
no matter what they say, break more than bones.

A black man sits one table over. You have seen him before.
In the right setting he is jovial and clever.
You have seen him laugh deep into his eyes.
He wears a cross under his sweat-stained t-shirt.
He orders an omelet in a subdued voice,
and hot tea, with cream.
His quietness disturbs you. Saddens you.

We live in such a place. Too white for our own good,
Too comfortable for our own good,
as if our white horizons somehow protect us
from the pain that wrenches our nation, our world,
as if the lack of color makes it easier to say,
“Not here. Look at us. It is peaceful here.”

Don’t believe it. It is only subdued. A different kind of prejudice,
whispered at the tables, a prejudice of silence.

Scream it! Shout it! These are our children, not just God’s!
These are our brothers and sisters,
and those that treat them otherwise are the enemy.
Never doubt that.
Read your bibles, full of love, Christ’s only anger
at those who hide behind faith to exclude,
to harm, to forget the forgotten.

Read it and weep that we have chosen instead
to whisper our hate where it is not accepted
and shout it where it is not.

I am uncomfortable in today’s world.
I admit it.
I do not have a history of speaking out against
wrong, personal or public,
your father’s anger leaving you more comfortable
in silence. That ancient fear has controlled too much
of your life.

I am uncomfortable saying, when the world around me
is far too invested in its anger and it’s fear of each other,
that hate is wrong. That nothing good comes of it,
Nothing.

Love is love. Black lives matter. All people are people,
more like us than we know.
God’s children, as perfect and flawed
as everyone around us.
We have seen it in the fires and barricades.
Prejudice is dangerous and destructive.
It breeds anger, which given time,
always explodes.
Always.
Let me repeat that: Always.
No one wins.
No one is protected.
No one is saved.

Why are you less afraid now? Age perhaps. Or the learning
from your own life that people will believe
what they will believe, Truth be damned
or worse, ignored,
and you are none the worse for wear.

The black man leaves, a few crumbs left on his place.
I ask him about his daughter, a laughing imp
I have met once or twice. He smiles the least bit
and tells me she is enjoying the time of quarantine,
being home more. Even subdued, you can see his joy in her.
You have felt that same joy in your own life.

He leaves. Conversation grows louder.
The crowd is comfortable again.
but you are not. You wonder if you ever will be
again.

About this poem. 

I live in Vermont, what might be one of the whitest states in the Union.

I eat at diners most morning. The conversations and what people will say in a public setting amazes me.

It is an uncomfortable time. I, for one, think that is a good thing. Change only comes with discomfort.

Tom

2 comments

  1. It is, indeed, uncomfortable. In SE Asia, where I lived for a few years and many of the people were very dark skinned, I was never uncomfortable in this way. I was the minority, but I was always well treated. I didn’t see anyone as being any different. I’ve always wished it could be that way here.

  2. Long ago I read the definition of life: To respond to an irritation.
    Years later a very good poet told me the definition of a good poem is :To stimulate.
    Good work in your irritation!
    Be well.Healing is a process ;not an end.

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