This happened during my trip to Panama in July 2011
Spying the adventurous western tourist uniform of khaki shorts and short-sleeved collared shirt, I notice a white-haired man whisk by me.
“¿Cómo está usted?” I hear in an unmistakeably gringo accent.
He would continue to talk to me, even as he noted he was interrupting my skype conversation. He hung around the lobby and when I got off the phone and headed back to my room, he saw his opportunity.
He invited me to join him out on the balcony to chat. We discussed our fascination with Latin America, the pains of learning Spanish as gringos, and our shared status as divorcees. The white-bearded stranger told me about his love of music, and excitedly shared his favorite country western songs with me. As the twangy voices emanated from his portable speakers, he touted the wonderful stories they told.
I perked myself back to life when I realized this was a rare opportunity for an intercultural and inter-generational exchange.
“Do you want to hear my favorite song?” I asked.
He eagerly responded affirmatively, and began to watch as I scanned my iTunes playlist. I explained to him how I loved poetry, and that this artist was simply one of the best lyricists and story tellers I had ever heard. I played the song for him and watched his reaction.
His eyes scanned the environment in an attempt to reorient himself. The once talkative man had gone silent.
“So what did you think?” I asked anxiously.
— “You know, frankly I’m surprised.”
Maybe he had never heard music like this before, and was fascinated, I thought.
Maybe this was the first time he had really listened and his eyes had been awakened to a world different than his own.
“You seem like such an intelligent young woman. How could you listen to something like this?”
His face sulked in disappointment and disbelief.
It seems he didn’t share my appreciation for Nas’s unreleased Blaze a 50. He dismissed the colorful tale of an affair and subsequent murder for insurance money as gangster rap, even after I explained to him that Nas is no more a gangster rapper than Robert DeNiro is a gangster actor. He asserted that DeNiro was completely different because everyone knows he’s not actually a gangster. The unstated implication being, of course, that young Black men are all really scary gang bangers (feel free to insert your own Trayvon Martin reference here).
I had forced his whiteness to surface.
“So you think a 19-year old from Queensbridge projects actually heads an international drug-peddling organized crime operation, and he commits murders on a regular basis?” I asked sarcastically.
–“Yes.” he responded without hesitation.
He went on to explain how all of these criminals were morally corrupt individuals using poverty as an excuse for their crimes. I found myself acting as defense attorney and representative for young Black America.
“Well, then the FBI, ATF, and NYPD are not only incredibly stupid, but extraordinary lazy since the confession for all of these crimes has been recorded studio quality and duplicated over a million times.” I explained, surprisingly using no 4-letter words or name calling.
He never conceded to the illogical nature of his beliefs, but didn’t let his lack of respect for my culture deter his opportunity for an encounter with an ethnic young woman. He extended several invitations for me to explore the nightlife in Panama City with him.
I went back to my room to get some rest in preparation for the next day’s adventure…
The Panama Canal.