In the fall of 1997, fresh off a transfer from my old position in Texas, I accompanied a new colleague on a walk through our office complex in Newark, New Jersey.
We walked along the lobby on the second floor and the elevated view through the tinted windows bothered me for some reason. It wasn’t the setting, which was the typical lobby complete with a security/information booth and loads of people wearing suits hustling about. It was instead the sight of the escalator coming up from the first floor with absolutely no one on it. I hadn’t seen a single soul on this lonely escalator the whole time we’d been walking about, though there were thousands of people pouring in from tunnels and skywalks on the second floor. I’d actually done down the first floor the day before and found it devoid of any life. My unease prompted a question.
“Why is the lobby on the second floor?”
My innocent question triggered a disgusted look from my colleague. “Hello? The riots? The buildings have to be able to defend themselves if riots come again. None of them have anything on the first floor.”
Riots? What riots?
My naiveté regarding the 1967 riots is perhaps a little defensible due to the fact that my formative years were spent nearly 1,500 miles away and, of course, I hadn’t quite been born yet (though that excuse is lame as I know quite a bit about wars and battles that took place hundreds, even thousands of years ago).
The first time I’d been forced to think about race was back in Denver when my first grade classmates and I were required to participate in a racial integration bussing program. We’d load up onto busses parked in our school’s parking lot in the morning and were dropped off at another public school 20 minutes away where the majority of the students were African-American.
At six-years-old it’s fair to say I was confused by all of it. It’s also fair to say I also had my first inkling of what it felt to be a tourist. I wasn’t from the neighborhood that surrounded this other school any more than the kids from this neighborhood bussed to my school were from my mine. We were all short-timers, a little puzzled by it all, but as far as I can recall everyone involved got along. Recess was the focal point of any day in first grade, and one playground covered in lead paint was as good as any other.
During my year in Newark, where I clung to the lowest possible rung of management that has ever existed, I worked with the nearly entirely white management team while supervising a group of people that was about 50% African American. There were things I grew to hate about that job, but one of them was NOT our group or the ribbing they gave me — if you’re a chubby white guy from Texas named Marshall who drives a truck you’re going to take your share of abuse in Newark.
When my stint in Newark ended I was transferred to another office in a nearby state but still kept in touch with much of my old group back in NJ. One woman in that group, who I’ll call Elizabeth, reached out to me soon after my transfer and asked if I’d be able to come back to the Newark office early one day so we could meet. She didn’t want to talk about any details via phone or e-mail but did confirm that wanted to transfer out of the NJ office.
Elizabeth was my favorite person from that group. She was everyone’s favorite person. An amazing, hard-working, friendly woman who almost always had a smile on her face — but who also took crap from no one, including me. I figured out a way to justify working from the Newark office and, a few days later, showed up at her cubicle at 6:00 a.m. and waited for her to arrive.
At 8:30 a.m., having spent a couple of hours answering a lot of curious queries as to why I was hanging out in Newark, her phone rang and I picked it up. The caller announced that they worked at a nearby construction site and had found Elizabeth’s purse in their dumpster.
The next few hours were full of crying, tales of Elizabeth’s volatile relationship with her estranged ex-husband, who worked in construction, and, eventually, a trip to the local police precinct (think The Wire — but not as nice) to file a report. A group of us spent the next several days passing out fliers asking for any information about her whereabouts (until we were escorted off the premises by the security team of our employer, who wanted to distance itself from the event).
Many month’s later Elizabeth’s dismembered body was found buried in a number of different construction sites around the area. Her murder at the hands of her ex, who’d picked her up from work that fateful night, slowly made its way through the court system and by the time it was all over I was back in Texas in a new job working for another company.
My fond memories of Elizabeth and my sadness of how she was taken from the world come back to me all the time, particularly when I see the continued reports of deaths, riots and chaos linked to racial tension in the U.S. Her death, a senseless, evil act, had nothing to do with the color of her skin — but the friendship I’d forged with her stands out as the first time I had a close relationship with an African American woman — a relationship that grew deeper even after her death through her friends, our co-workers and her family. Elizabeth and I initially had nothing in common, or so we thought, but as we gave each other a chance we’d found that the truth was the exact opposite.
We now live in our adopted country, Costa Rica, and I am grateful each and every time a Tico looks past the color of my skin and my many obvious faults. I, in turn, am trying hard to get over my preconceived notions about how the world should work. This process isn’t easy for any involved, but it is already reaping dividends for me and my family. I hope at least some portion of the Tico community feels the same way.
I don’t know that anyone has identified a solution to the ongoing, escalating racial tension in the U.S. I do feel that an open mind and a better understanding of history goes a long way towards building bridges. I also know that senseless violence and acts of evil don’t help anyone.