I wore a t-shirt two days ago. This should be nothing out of the ordinary, but (a) two days ago was Friday, and (b) I don't normally wear t-shirts during the week.
But my company is downsizing, like many others in the mortgage industry, so I ironed my navy blue" Obama 08" t-shirt, the one with the Obama logo over the right breast, and took the long way to work.
I live and work in Alpharetta, one of Atlanta's northern suburbs, where it is pretty obvious that African American men are a distinct minority. But if you are groomed and dressed like the rest of middle America, which means close cropped hair, clean shaven face, a wardrobe of conservatively cut slacks whose hues revolve around the primary colors for men - blue, green, brown and khaki - and a collection of polo style shirts to match, your brown skin doesn't seem to call much attention to itself.
My company's office is located in the Windward office park. I work for a small, struggling nationwide mortgage brokerage that sits among the massive operations centers of GE, HP, AT&T and other corporate giants whose names have boiled down to acronyms. Many of the jobs at the middle management level in these companies pay well enough to allow these employees to maintain their households on one income. So this live/work/play development has a large contingent of women who are stay at home moms.
When I walked into one of the breakfast joints on Windward Parkway to eat, the hostess looked up, and her eyes widened as she focused on the Obama logo on my t-shirt. A big smile leapt across her face as she nodded her head up and down. She seated me in the middle of the restaurant, where I proceeded to spread out my paper and check the headlines. From where I sat, I could see about half of the place. Patrons who had to go to the bathroom had to walk my way for about fifteen feet before they could begin to veer off towards their table, or the exit.
One woman, who sat on the other side of the restaurant, had a seat facing mine. She stared at my shirt for a few minutes - just stopped eating, a look of disgust on her face.
Many of the women had small children - curious, full of energy - who were attracted to the red white and blue circle on my chest that stood out from the navy background. Several of the women shooed the children along, looking down or away as they passed me , as if they were trying to avoid eye contact.
The waitress arrived. She had an amused look on her face. "Nice shirt," she said. She laid the menu down in front of me. "You work for the campaign?"
That threw me - I never would have thought that I looked like I worked for the Obama campaign. "No. I'm just a supporter." After a couple of seconds, I added, "you know, like trying to get people registered to vote?"
She drew her shoulders up and professed that she was registered to vote. Her eyes still twinkled. "I been watching all this on the news for months."
Normally, when I go somewhere, this is how I am - I talk to the people around me. If I catch someone's eye, I try to make conversation, try to say something positive or funny to make a quick connection. But to do that, you've got to be able to look at the person's eyes. Even the people who were seated next to me, who seemed affable enough, and looked like my neighbors, or the kind of people who worked in my building, seemed a little stiffer than usual.
Was my chest stuck out farther than normal today? Had I forgotten to do that thing which larger than average professional black men all over the country are experts at, that act of compression, of compaction, that made outsized shoulders and forearms less threatening, that made outsized thighs and buttocks less potent?
When I walked into the office, one of our remaining staffers saw me as I came through the lobby. She usually waved without stopping if she was en route to someone's office or the break room. Today, she broke stride for a few seconds. "Obama 'o8, huh?" She kind of half smiled, as if I was revealing something in public that she'd already suspected.
I don't usually mix politics and business, but when your company is on the rocks, this is the least of your worries. Wearing this t-shirt, which might ordinarily have been a source of debate, didn't even seem to register with most people - we were all busy scrambling to close out the business we had in our pipelines. For the few who did notice, the lettering across my chest seemed to be magnetic - every time I saw them, whether I was at the copier, or the fax, they would gaze at that spot on my chest for three, four, sometimes five beats, as if they needed to reread it ever time they saw it.
An older black woman I work with, who normally looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders, smiled from ear to ear when she saw "Obama '08". "Great shirt."
"Yes ma'am," I said, "that it is."
With business slowed to a trickle, I'd done all I could do by three o'clock. I took the long way home, stopping by the Barnes and Noble that was a few miles south of my office, right by Northpoint Mall. Just getting into the store was interesting - several drivers snapped their necks around to look at the shirt, one of them going so far as to start talking to themselves as they passed me. Inside the bookstore, it was like I had my own Secret Service detail. I started to understand how The Emperor Who Wore No Clothes must have been treated - no one, it seemed, wanted to look anywhere near me.
The clerk looked at the cover of the latest issue of New York magazine I laid on the counter when it was my turn to pay - the word "RACE" was in big red block letters, superimposed over a black and white rendering of Barack Obama's face - but her face looked more concerned about the number of people in line.
Later that evening, out of the blue, S. wanted to go out to eat. I thought about changing - she was still dressed in the same clothes she'd worn to a business luncheon earlier, and I wasn't sure where we were going - but I said "what the hell". We went south, about five miles closer to Atlanta, to a little bedroom community called Norcross. It had been a whistlestop back in the heydey of train travel - now the depot still standing in the middle of the single square block that comprised the commercial district of downtown Norcross was a restaurant. A few mini-mansions had been recently tucked into a few corners here and there, but for the most part, the town had retained much of its original character, a mixture of newly renovated Victorian homes and well-maintained Post War ones.
The walk down the sidewalk produced the same non-looks from most of the people scattered along the sidewalk who were waiting to get into the storefront restaurants we passed, but there were a few raised eyebrows that were paired with sly smiles. Entering the pizza place on the corner, it was the family hour - kids everywhere, some tables filled with three generations, the waiting area full. Other than a couple of mothers at the front, who looked at us as if they were officers of the Nazi SS Waffen corps, most of the people were too busy trying to avoid getting tomato sauce on themselves to care about us.
By the time we left, it was getting dark. We strolled down the sidewalk. I hadn't seen another Obama t-shirt all day. In fact, I hadn't seen ANY Obama advertising or campaign signs all day. The sound of music seemed to be coming out of one of the storefronts as we got further down the street. We came to the window of a coffee shop. It was packed with people, and a small combo was playing.
S. suggested that we go inside. The combo was on one side of the door, the audience on the other - we had to walk right down the middle to get to a raised landing on the other side of the room. A few women's faces on the lower level strained as we entered. The woman at the door called us back after we had crossed in front of the crowd to give us tickets for free drinks.
Standing in line to get a couple of glasses of red wine, I felt someone bustling towards me. "Nice shirt" said the man. The girls behind the counter smiled. We traipsed back towards the rear of the building, where we spied a courtyard. The owner was parked in front of a huge chocolate cake that announced the one year anniversary of the coffee shop. "We've got a lot of your people here all the time," he said, gesturing towards my t-shirt.
Two middle-aged black women sat at a table near the entrance to the courtyard. They gave us slow motion nods as they ate their slices of cake.
The courtyard had two sections, half of it covered by an awning, half of it open air, dotted with the kind of wrought iron tables that featured the umbrellas in the middle. Baby carriages and running children dominated the covered area, so we navigated our way through the parents who were milling about to the open air section.
S. sat - I stood at the railing along the rear, looking up and down the narrow one way street that ran behind the storefronts. A few more people trickled outside - a tall, severe looking couple in matching long sleeved Brooks Brothers shirts with the cuffs turned back, and a more casually dressed trio, one man and two women. The severe woman spilled her wine setting it down on the table. They ate fast and disappeared.
The trio had been in conversation for awhile when the man caught my eye. "We're pulling for him," he yelled across the courtyard. The parents in the covered courtyard didn't turn their heads, but he was loud enough for them to hear him. "We are too," I yelled back.
A few minutes later, a couple of mosquito bites convinced us that it was time to go home. We had to pass the trio to go back through the coffee shop. The man reiterated his earlier comment. "We're from Jersey," he said. "We're used to thinking differently than the people down here." The five of us ended up talking for about ten minutes, the political patter giving way to the basic who what when and where type of stuff you talk about when you first meet strangers.
I was ready to go home, but since I'd mentioned the bookstore visit earlier, S. wanted to get a new book by one of her favorite authors. So we swooped into another Barnes and Noble that was between downtown Norcross and home. The Starbucks I passed on the way to the bathroom was filled with Asian teenagers and college students. They all had a name on their chests too - Hollister or Harvard or Georgia or DKNY - and appeared to be involved in such intense conversations that they didn't seem to notice me at all.
No one in this bookstore moved out of the way. Pretty much everyone here, even those who frowned at the sight of the Obama logo, would look back at me instead of down at the floor. On the way out, we ran into S.'s old boss, an ex-CEO of a satellite communications manufacturer. A small, handsome man with a shock of white hair, he looked tired in the way that sixty something year old men do when they have children under the age of ten. He was cordial, as always, filling S. in on the whereabouts of the other officers of the company who had departed.
It wasn't until he'd walked to the register to pay for his book that a thought crossed my mind - of all the people I'd run into all day, it had been mostly women, in particular women who looked like they were not in the workforce, who had demonstrated the most visible signs of animosity towards the logo on my chest.
But the most interesting thing about Friday to me was, of the five black people I ran into that day - which says a LOT about what part of the Atlanta metro area I was in - that of those five, only one, my co-worker, was openly enthusiastic about seeing the Obama logo.
The two black women in the coffee shop? They had had looks on their faces that said to me, "negro, why are you trying to get these white folks riled up?"