My New Black Friend
Chad was officially convinced that the only people who truly derive pleasure from karaoke at any given moment are those behind the mic. Like the swaying sorority girl up on the micro-stage slurring, warbling—slarbling, really—Prince's never-ending "Purple Rain," a notorious karaoke mistake by any measure. The rest of the people in attendance? Rats caged with the vocal equivalent of a liberally deployed air horn.
Fucking birthday parties.
Chad felt—quite strongly—that birthday parties are the province of the young. Toddlers, children, tweens, teens, even 21-year-olds...sure. Let them eat cake. And wear pointy hats. And, in the case of those poor souls turning 21, puke that cake, and 14 slippery nipples, into those pointy hats. But adults, Chad insisted—frequently and passionately—have no business making a fuss about their advancing mortality. Adults should age with quiet dignity, muted pain and minimal fanfare as nature intended.
Not surprisingly, Chad's objections to both birthday parties in general and this specific birthday party feting Lisa's co-worker Carol, a master cubicle collage artisan, were cavalierly brushed aside in a manner that was entirely Lisa. No discussion. No hysterics. Just a simple and final ruling. "You're going," Lisa decreed with the gravitas of a superior court justice with no less than 10 years on the bench. Or a wife.
And that's how Chad found himself belly up at The Blue Banshee Karaoke Lounge, waiting for the sweet embrace of death or a socially acceptable departure time, whichever came first. Chad scoped the room, not for the first time. Vaulted, beamed ceiling...Scandinavian fixtures obscured by neon booze swag...LBJ era vibe...for a karaoke joint, it made a fine ski lodge.
Chad lifted his hand, with some effort, from the wood-esque bar top. Sticky. With what, Chad mused with a splash of unease, was a question best left unasked.
A 180 from the human fly strip brought Lisa into view. Just watching her exhausted Chad. Lisa was on task, dispensing standardized pleasantries to people pockets around the room—a workplace robin distributing wormy cheer to her office nestlings. A "howareyou," for the greasy sales rep. A "youlookgreat," for the chubby HR frumpstress. A "greattoseeyoutoo," for the moist comb over from accounting. Lisa was a crowd ballerina, never missing a twirl.
Chad didn't dance. He was too busy scrutinizing the establishment's handsome display of liquor bottles for the fifth time. Eight brands of vodka...six tequilas ...six whiskeys, including Jack Daniels, Chad's signature drink. A man's drink. Made less masculine by the addition of Diet Coke in Chad's case. But still respectable. From a distance.
Six rums...five kinds of scotch...Midori...Midori? Chad realized he had never tasted, let alone ordered, Midori. Never seen it ordered. Never heard it ordered. Never met anyone who had even tried it. Yet Chad was pretty sure a bottle of Midori could be found in every bar with a liquor license. But why? Chad formed a theory. Midori is green. Green is pretty. Therefore Midori exists. Not as a beverage. As décor.
Basking in the warm glow of his alcoholic revelation, Chad was about to increase his chances of a DUI on the trip home when the stool beside him was claimed.
A guy. Roughly Chad's age. Dressed in post-work repose. Cash in hand. On the hunt for a fresh Bud Light. To the casual observer, nothing would differentiate this guy from the rest of the blurry-eyed Blue Banshee patrons. But two things struck Chad immediately. The first was the guy's body language. It suggested he was no more pleased with his surroundings than Chad. The second? He was black.
Ordinarily, Chad would have been oblivious to the guy's skin color, if not his very presence. But, at that moment, Chad had another revelation. In the 33 years of his decidedly white existence, Chad could not honestly lay claim to even one close black friend. Acquaintances, sure. Co-workers, of course. But a friend he could call for a ride to the airport or a hand lugging furniture up some stairs or even an opening night excursion to Michael Bay's latest assault on the senses and reason? Chad had friends like these in decent supply. But not a single one of them was black.
Chad felt twinges. Regret. Guilt. Shame. Was this his fault? His parents' fault? Society's fault? Chad had always prided himself on being colorblind. But maybe he wasn't. His world had always been pretty white. Childhood suburb? White picket fence. College? Ivory tower. Job? Whitewashing corporate malfeasance. Was the lack of color in Chad's life due to circumstances beyond his control? Or was it by choice, either deliberate or sub-conscious?
Chad considered the inconceivable...was he a closet racist? Racist?! Chad didn't think he was racist. But had he done anything to prove that? True, he voted for Obama. And, when Obama won, Chad felt as much pride as was appropriate for a white male to feel during so historic a victory for equality. But what steps had Chad taken in his own life to close racial gaps? Not many, Chad conceded. Certainly not enough.
The opening of Abba's "Take A Chance On Me"—murmured tunelessly by a trio of wobbly Asians—reached Chad's ears. An undeniable sign. Chad made a decision. He was going to try to make a black friend. Right then. Right there. It was the least Chad could do to help usher in a new era of hope. The sea change that had begun with President Obama's election was about to flood The Blue Banshee. Chad turned to the black gentleman now seated next to him and took a very bold chance.
"You here for the birthday party? Carol?"
The black guy hesitated. Did he know Chad? "Uh, yeah. My wife went to school with Carol. I just...came along."
"Me too. Chad." Chad lurched, eager, leading with his hand.
The black guy caught the handshake. Friendly-firm. "Omar."
Chad was buzzing. Jack, diet caffeine and pure adrenaline. It was a great start. They'd exchanged names. They'd opened the door. They were on their way to...
Chad noticed the silence. Awkward. Growing. He had to say something. But what? His name? They'd already covered names...it was getting uncomfortable. If he didn't say something soon, it would be too late. Well ahead of schedule, Chad played the work card. It was all he had.
"I'm an attorney at BBI. How 'bout you?"
"Financial consultant. Rawlings Morris."
Chad nodded, relieved. It was a good save. But temporary. He wasn't out of the woods. The silence was widening again. Chad wished he'd been less reckless. If he'd just had more time to prepare...or any time at all. Why did he move without a plan? What was he thinking? Adult male friendships form with the frequency of comet sightings under ideal conditions. But this...Chad coughed out some pointless filler to buy time.
"So...you been here before?"
"Yeah. My wife loves this place. But I'm not much of a karaoke guy."
"Yeah, me neither."
It was painful. Did Chad really have so little to say to Omar? It's not like this was Chad's first close encounter of the black kind. He'd slept with a black woman. Two actually. Both pre-marriage, of course. One in college and one during a contractual law seminar in Tampa.
Chad remembered noting distinct differences in the sexual details during both encounters. Visual differences, obviously. Aural variations. Tactile surprises. Most of them deemed positive in the moment. But were those differences real? Or were they the product of Chad's imagination? Was Bedroom Chocolate Swirl really a better flavor than Vanilla Bliss? Were they even different flavors? Chad still wasn't sure. And he'd given the issue some serious thought.
Chad could see Omar politely trying to conjure an escape hatch in the floor with his mind. Five more seconds and Omar was gone for good. But Chad wasn't ready to give up. Not yet. Desperate, Chad heaved up a prayer.
"You, uh, play fantasy football?"
A smile bloomed on Omar's face. "Been waiting for the season to start since the Super Bowl ended."
The gates swung open. Chad and Omar were on common ground. They volleyed football trivia, statistical minutiae and remembrances of past NFL glories as if that was a sport itself. Quarterbacks vs. running backs. Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. Baltimore D vs. Pittsburgh D. Adrian Peterson vs. everybody else. L.T. T.O. M.J.D. Would Favre ever retire for good? Would there ever be another Favre?
From there they moved onto movies. Chad lobbied for Saving Private Ryan. Omar preferred The Matrix. But they settled on Shawshank Redemption. And Caddyshack.
They touched on wives, alma maters, Mexican restaurants, electric cars, running shoes, the Super Friends, past injuries and surgeries, MSNBC, credit default swaps, sunset clauses and Dave Chapelle. On all issues they found they were more in sync than at odds. They laughed. They confided. They bonded.
Chad was swept up completely. Unbridled joy. He and Omar had clicked. And clicking had grown increasingly rare for Chad with age. But, at various points in the exchange Chad wondered, ever so briefly...was Omar as excited about meeting him as he was about meeting Omar? Did Omar want a white friend as much as Chad wanted a black one? Perhaps Chad could ask Omar. Not yet. But someday...
"What's going on over here?"
Lisa had materialized at Chad's elbow. Chad grinned a bit too proudly as he motioned a bit too grandly to Omar.
"Lisa, meet my new friend Omar. Omar, this is my wife Lisa."
Lisa smirked at Chad as she took Omar's hand. Clearly she would be driving on the way home. "Nice to meet you, Omar."
"You too. Heard a lot about you."
Lisa's eyes narrowed, mock scolding Chad. "Really? Like what?"
Omar, chuckling, waved off the attack. "All good, all good."
Chad's dumb grin peaked. Omar had his back. It was like they were old pals. Chad was exhilarated. He'd done it. He'd forged a new bridge across The Great Racial Divide. He was a trailblazer. A crusader. A champion of equality. It was a night Chad would always remember. A night the world might someday celebrate as—
"Ready to go?" Lisa's arm was looped through Chad's.
Go?! Chad checked his watch. Was it really 12:38? Chad and Omar had been talking for hours and he hadn't even noticed. It was incredible. But even more incredible was the fact that, for the first time in years, Chad wasn't ready to go. He wanted to stay.
And then Chad heard it. The opening piano riff of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'". And when the surprisingly competent voice of a buzz cut lesbian bartender on her only night off kicked in—"Just a small town grrrl..."—Chad realized the night couldn't get any better than it already was. In a rare display of social prudence, Chad would leave on the high note. He produced a business card and offered it to Omar.
"This was cool. We should grab lunch sometime."
"Absolutely. Shoot me an e-mail." Omar traded Chad's business card for his own. For a moment, Chad thought he detected ambiguity in Omar's tone. But he quickly dismissed the thought. Insecurity. Paranoia. Totally unfounded.
Chad and Omar shook hands. And, with that, they parted ways. But they would meet again. Chad was sure of that.
Chad swept Lisa into his arms and kissed her. He felt happy. He felt alive. He felt reborn.
"So how many drinks did you have?" Lisa asked rhetorically.
Chad had no idea. That wasn't important. What was important was Chad's breakthrough with a new friend. Who just happened to be black. Race wasn't an issue. It was a color-free union of mutual admiration. It was an inspirational poster made real.
A nagging sliver of doubt penetrated one of the few locations in Chad's murky gray matter still serving food. It gave Chad pause. He had to ask.
"You, uh...you think Omar liked meeting me as I liked meeting him?"
Lisa was already smirking and shaking her head, a gesture she had performed, on average, 6.7 times per day in Chad's presence since the third month of their relationship.
"No. He probably meets a dumb white guy like you who wants to be his friend every day. At least."
Because this was not the answer Chad was seeking, he immediately dismissed it as unmitigated lunacy. Chad's bond with Omar was special. Precious. Invaluable. Chad would nurture this friendship like no other. He would cultivate it like a rare, exotic flower. And, no matter what, he would never let it die.
Chad would not stop believing. He would hold on to this feeling.
He would do it for himself. For Omar. For President Obama. And for the betterment of all people of all colors in all places at all times. Amen.
He would definitely call Omar. Or e-mail him. Either one. But he would do it.
He would definitely probably call or e-mail Omar. And he'd do it soon. Not too soon. Kinda soon. Down the road a little.
But Chad knew one thing for certain. He would contact Omar.
Or maybe he wouldn't.