Monday, October 29, 2018

The Black Cable

 I spent the afternoon at my mother’s house waiting for the cable guy to arrive. He did. His name was Andre, a polite young man – he later told me he was a mere 20 years old. He had a major rewiring job ahead of him, but before he could begin he needed to locate the cable junction box outside. He asked me where it was and I confessed I was clueless. “It’s not my home,” I averred, joining him as we searched the grounds for the elusive box. After circling the house five times, examining various junction boxes and switches and crawling through bushes and sedge, I was ready to admit defeat. But Andre explained the nearby neighbors were likely also plugged into the box, which could be up to 100 feet from the main house. So we began peering through the backyards of the adjoining houses.

A few minutes later, Andre called out, “I’ve found it!” I was sweating under the midday heat of the glaring, unforgiving sun and those were joyous words indeed. Now the job would not have to be rescheduled and I could return to the comfort of air-conditioning. But the look on Andre’s face told me there was a problem. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s behind that fence.” He pointed to a chain-link fence abutting the property line. The junction box sat four feet away. “I’ll need to go onto your neighbor’s property.”

“That’s not a problem,” I said. “As a utility worker, you have an easement to enter the property to service the device. You won’t be trespassing.”

He still looked worried. “I know that. But I’ll have to climb the fence.”

“If a homeowner is blocking access to an easement, you have the right to remove the blockage. You could even cut a hole in the fence, if need be.” All those years of law school were not wasted on me after all. Yet I saw he was still troubled. “What’s the problem? Don’t tell me you’ve never hopped a fence before.”

“It’s my skin color.” Did I mention Andre was black? It hadn’t seemed relevant… Until now.

I felt the bile rising within me: disgust, followed by anger, which settled into lingering heartfelt disappointment… With all the people who looked like me who had either perpetrated, or allowed to continue, such a toxic environment that would instill fear -- even fear for his life -- into an innocent young man who was merely trying to do his job.

“They see me in their backyard, or climbing the fence…” He didn’t need to continue. I got it. “I might get shot.” He suggested rescheduling the appointment. The cable company would send a different repairman. He meant a white one.

“No, I’m not rescheduling. Let’s do this. I’ve got your back. They’ll have to shoot me first.” We walked to the house behind us and knocked on the door. There were four cars in the driveway but no one answered. I’d never met these neighbors; I hoped our first meeting wouldn’t be when we were on the wrong side of their fence.

Andre scaled the fence and tried to open the junction box. “It’s stuck. I need my hammer from the truck.” He looked at me with pleading eyes. “Could you get it for me?” He didn’t have to explain any further: I understood why he would not want to be a young black man with a hammer cutting through the backyards of an upper-middle-class white neighborhood.

“Sure,” I replied. “No problem.” And it was no problem… For me. The thought that it might have been would never have occurred to me; yet the same thought haunted Andre’s mind on every service call he made.

I stayed with him, outside in the broiling midday sun, while he worked on the junction box, like a loyal canine protecting his master. My presence provided a sense of security for him, while leaving me sickened that it would be necessary, here in America, in the 21st century.

Andre reattached the coaxial cable to the junction box. It was white; all the cables were white. At that moment, the junction box became a metaphor for our society: all the white cables plugged in neatly in place: it’s only the black cable that would feel out of place.

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