When Food Is Love
Love was the last thing I expected to find when I walked into Kepley’s Bar-B-Q.
A cluster of white faces looked up expectantly and warily as the aluminum door squeaked behind me. I scanned the menu on the wood-paneled wall. A pound of vinegar-based, pork barbeque, for which the restaurant was known, would set me back $4. A large, order of hush puppies was $2.15.
“Can I help you?” the waitress asked.
The evening news blared on the television. A short-order cook draped his large forearms, big as turkey legs, over the counter. Spatula in hand, he waited for my order. I stammered that I wanted a hamburger, fries and a sweet tea.
“For here or to go?”
Judging from the “pig décor” and the white signs with red lettering, announcing cherry, peach and blackberry cobbler as the featured deserts, much hadn’t changed since the restaurant first opened in 1948. I felt the red-rimmed, watery eyes of the elderly, white people seated at a nearby table pierce my skin. It must have been a real shock to them when they changed their policy about 10 minutes ago to allow blacks to walk through the front door, I thought.
“For here,” I said.
I scurried past the table of dagger-eyed seniors and found a seat at the back of the restaurant. A couple with a young son walked in. They looked like model citizens of Trump’s America. She was heavily pregnant and pretty. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing the radiant health and excitement of a second child. He wore a collared, button-down shirt — the kind a man wears at a job interview, Sunday morning, or on date night with his family. They looked like they belonged in this restaurant in High Point, North Carolina.
I did not belong.
I didn’t belong in this restaurant in 2016. I didn’t belong in this backwater town that sold plenty of fancy furniture, but not much food at a decent restaurant for miles. I didn’t belong in North Carolina. As the recent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille and countless others at the barrel of a white police officer’s gun proved, I didn’t even belong in this country.
In the midst of the unfolding of those tragic events, I sliced open my own wounds around race and police brutality and displayed them in a heart-breaking video and a series of social media posts. I attended a science fiction convention the following weekend, hoping that pondering the future of steampunk and the importance of the superhero in American popular culture would provide solace and escape.
It didn’t. The specter of race laughed at my naiveté and pulled up a chair next to me as I attended a diversity panel at the science fiction conference. Writers in various speculative fiction genres discussed what they thought diversity was and why they thought it was important to include characters of various ethnic, gender, sexual orientation and abilities, in their fiction.
“Maybe you should skip this one,” a friend warned. “It’s just white people talking to white people. They mean well, but…”
I wished I listened to him. A growing feeling of depression kneaded my chest as I listened to writers who created entire worlds on the page and yet my experience as a black woman in America was alien to them. It seemed that I and anyone who wasn’t a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, able-bodied male was something to be researched and studied like quantum physics or Klingon language.
I searched the data-bank of my personal experiences for anomalies as one writer suggested incorporating diverse characters in speculative fiction could be as easy as changing the skin color of a barista from white to brown.
“Hmm…I have two eyes, a nose and two ears. I grew up in New Jersey, went to college, got married, got divorced, lived in an apartment and I’m an entrepreneur. Yup, no signs of alien life forms here.”
I walked out of the panel when a female writer on the panel made flippant comments about rape survivors.
I was as raw as cole slaw when I walked in Kepley’s and my situation had not improved since the meal arrived at my table. The suffocation of otherness when I just wanted to feel normal, stop having to explain my experiences and justify my humanity constricted my throat. I couldn’t swallow. I had to get out of the restaurant and return to the hotel. I could at least eat in my room. I grabbed the half-eaten hamburger and still-warm fries and headed for the door.
“Do you want a bag for that?”
I looked for the sound of the voice. It was from one of the elderly, white people at the table I brushed past earlier.
“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll be ok. I don’t want to put you out.”
“Well, that’s what bags are for,” he said. “You wait right here.”
I glanced toward the door as he walked over with a white, paper bag. He opened the bag and gently slid my food toward the bottom. He made sure the lining of the bag was strong and sturdy. He folded the top of the bag and creased it.
“There you go,” he said. “You make sure you come back now, ok?”
I nodded and ran out. When I sat in the car, the full force of what just happened hit me: I was loved. It wasn’t the kind of love that drew hearts in the sand or epic love that spanned across decades and continents. But it was love told in a small gesture, the kind that could topple regimes and change history.
In the simple act of lovingly securing the bag and making sure it could properly hold my burger and fries, the man communicated that I mattered to him. It mattered to him that I enjoyed his restaurant’s food long after I left. It mattered to him that I came to him for a meal and left feeling full and satisfied.
“I gotta go back and finish my supper,” I said to myself.
I returned. No one looked up. The waitress asked if I needed anything, as if I hadn’t left. I finished my meal and asked to see the elderly man before I left. He walked over with a huge smile.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “When I walked in, I felt like I didn’t belong here. I felt uncomfortable and I just wanted to run away. But then you were so kind to me, so nice and I just couldn’t…”
“It helps to be nice when you have a pretty woman in front of you,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“Bob,” he said.
“Hello Bob, I’m Kerra.”
Bob leaned over and picked up a photograph of him with Martha Stewart.
“I like pretty women,” he said. “She was the second, most-important guest we’ve had.”
“You are the first,” he implied.
“Do you mind if we take a picture together?” I said.
He smiled and a waitress took our photo. I kissed his cheek.
“You come back now, ok?”
“Yes, I promise.”
My “otherness” melted in our shared humanity. Bob didn’t have to think about how to characterize, portray or explain my life to others. All he had to do was make sure my burger and fries stayed warm to tell me that I mattered. All I had to do was keep my heart open to love.
The article is reposted from Medium.com