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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Community Comment

The call of diversity—many are called…

Good morning, Netizens...

In my reverie this morning, and somewhat subsequent to an opportunity yesterday to have coffee with John Olsen, I found myself remembering diversity, such as I knew it to be back in the late 60's and early 70's, and began pondering all the changes that forty-some years of living have brought. I originally wanted this to reply to everyone's comments on diversity, but since it ran a bit long, I decided to put it in a thread of its own.

One has to remember that, prior to my experiences in the Bay Area including Berkeley, my only encounters with persons of color were occasional trips down South as a truck driver, largely because I didn't know my way around and stumbled into several Negro-only businesses in the Deep South. For the most part, people in these racially-partitioned establishments were polite, but terribly curious about what a truck driver wearing Stetson boots and wearing a cowboy hat was doing in their establishments. Some others, a small but vocal minority in most cases, were a little-less receptive, and simply wanted me to return to the “white” side of town and leave them the hell alone. Some old hatreds, mistrusts and resentments die hard, I learned.

Then I stumbled onto, or rather fell into Berkeley, California. Getting acclimated to campus life in Berkeley in the early 70's took more than simply paying your fees, buying your books and setting up housekeeping. There were people of every imaginable hue and color, each with their own particular of culture and lifestyle. I never forgot the first time I went grocery shopping and stumbled into a grocery store on the corner of Ashby and Telegraph, well outside the boundaries of Berkeley proper, and discovered to my amusement that, despite what I had seen in the South, people of all races, creeds and colors were seemingly getting along fashionably well and buying groceries, all without one hint of discord. Somehow, despite the ethnic differences, people still knew how to buy food for their families and managed to be amiable about it.

However, as I discovered later on, there was an indelible color line about twenty or thirty blocks east, in what was called the Oakland-Berkeley line. Yes, the color of the amount of green necessary to rent a livable apartment dropped to where I could afford to live independently. I remember my first neighbors, as I think they probably remember me. I had the only Peterbilt truck in the parking lot, I had arrived sans any furniture at all, and spoke both English and passable Tex-Mex. To them, I was probably just as odd as odd could be. I had a duffel bag, a box of books and within a few days, a desk and a chair.

For neighbors I had a bachelor next door from the Malagasy Republic who wove incredibly intricate things out of bamboo but who never spoke much, a pair of young twittering gay lovebirds upstairs left, who kept to themselves excepting on Saturday mornings when they shook the pictures right off the walls banging away at each other in their love nest, and, upstairs right, an entire family from fresh off the boats from Cambodia. They taught me my first lessons on diversity in my new home.

When they first moved in, I was astonished to discover their oldest son sleeping in the hall, armed with what appeared to be a sword across his knee, who threatened me and told me do not come any closer. Since they only spoke a smattering of English, it took awhile to learn the reason: he was there to protect his mother and two sisters. His father had died trying to protect his family from the Khmer Rouge thugs in Cambodia, and he was still dancing with the fear that lived on in his young mind that these unimaginable beasts might come again in the night. Eventually, the son found a bed of his own, and put his father's sword away forever. His mother, who already had a college education by some miraculous means, ended up in one of the thousands of study programs at U.C. Berkeley on Far Eastern Studies.

The neighborhood grocer down the street from my apartment was decidedly transitional Korean, and a grandmotherly type who lived next door to my apartment house spoke English with a heavy German accent. She kept an ornate garden of incredible beauty, and often stop puttering among her roses to talk. I could not help but notice a blue number tattooed on her arm, but I never was able to convince her to talk of that. Some things, she said, were best left forgotten. I never knew much about her but when she passed on several years later, I made it my business to attend her wake, for she always gave me pale roses just before I would leave in the spring, and I believe she understood about dealing with old demons better than I.

Down the street, there was a simply divine barbecue rib/chicken/fish restaurant, owned by a black minister and his wife, who handed out Bible tracts along with their food. It was their intention, in their own words, to not only feed me, but feed my soul, and I never walked away from there hungry again.

Before, where I only occasionally had seen persons of color, suddenly I was immersed in an entire kaleidescope of human diverse cultures, and largely due to the training of my grandmother, I embraced them all. In those days I seldom spoke to anyone about my family, or why I disappeared during the summer months and most major holidays in that big red truck. Eventually, most of them understood that, and yes, eventually my own personal brand of healing began.

After that first year of diversity, I began a trait that has lasted through the test of time, that is I seek out diversity rather than ignoring it. If you open your arms to it, give it a welcome in your heart, it will make your life richer for having known it.

Of course, your results may differ.


Spokesman-Review readers blog about news and issues in Spokane written by Dave Laird.