A sometimes unfair journey of life

On a quiet Sunday evening, I was watching a documentary when my cell phone rang.

“This is Billy, have you got a minute? Sorry to call at this hour.”

Bill, short for William, has been a friend and colleague for 25 years. He and I worked on some tough cases together. His work is exemplary. His insights, particularly with street people, would fill a tool box with ready made approaches to resolving problems. Where my skills come up short, Billy’s skills are complementary.

“I’ve got a friend who stopped me in church earlier today. He and I talked at his request. He’s got some interesting problems. He’s wanting to talk. He asked if I knew any African-American therapists. I knew none. I told him about you. He’d be free to talk with you without any judgment. Will you see him?”

I gave Billy permission to call his friend and to give him my phone number. Nat called me the next day and we scheduled an appointment.

Three days later, I met Nat. We shook hands and walked to my office. He looked to be around 5 feet 9 inches or 10 inches, graying hair in a close crop style, a short graying beard, dark eyes with puffy skin below, and a bit of an extended stomach. He wore slacks, a stiff collared shirt, dress shoes with dark socks, and a wedding band. Welcome, Nat. I offered him a bottle of water, which he gladly took. Intuitively, I believed Nat would serve as both client and teacher.

Nat, thank you for coming in today. Our mutual friend, Billy, called me with your consent and had some reason to believe you wanted counseling. Is that accurate?

“Well, yes and no. I guess I better explain myself. First of all, in all due respect, Marshall, may I call you Marshall?”

Yes, please.

“Billy and I go way back. We met in church and liked to throw a football around with our children after worship. Both of us like to eat, so we’d meet for breakfast once in a while. He’s good people as you probably know. We spoke after church the other day. I asked to talk with him. He’s a good listener. He said that he could identify with my sentiments. Knowing his limitations and being a counselor, he could be my friend squarely. Maybe I could talk to the pastor. I’ve done that and yet, I seem to need someone unfamiliar to me to listen without prejudice. He mentioned you. I have to be honest here, Marshall. Black folks don’t traditionally seek professional counseling. Not in my family, at least. The thought of going by way of this avenue then, I wanted to see a brother. Billy told me no brothers of African-American heritage exist in our area. Damn! I thought about Billy’s recommendation; well, why not give you a try.”

I appreciate your honesty Nat. Will you please offer some disclosure? What’s on your mind?

Nat took a long drink of water. He began to laugh.

“You know, I figured you’d ask some question like that. Kind of opens the door, doesn’t it? I got to tell you, I’ve never as you say disclosed my mind, my heart to any white man. I do relate to white folks. I’ve got to. I’m a retired hotel manager. I worked out of state and retired before relocating here. Billy and his family stayed at the hotel I managed. That’s where we met. I ran the bar-restaurant, too. Billy liked good food and drink. I made the rounds in the restaurant. He and I struck a fancy. He knows what he and his family like to eat and I accommodated them. They were open to our local fare. He’s a generous tipper and my wait staff fought to be their server. He asked me to join him for a drink in the bar after I got off work. I met with him. I never did that before.

“I’ve got to be honest, some white folks have asked and I’d politely decline offering conflict of interest as an excuse. You see, our hotel catered mostly to white patrons. Black folks, well. .. they congregated at another establishment. Our hotel is expensive. Billy knew all this. The man cracked me up! He wanted to holiday at the top place. He didn’t care about diversity. He tried the place out once. When we clicked, his family continued their annual trek to reconnect later. Ha, ha. Sometimes we went together to another black owned restaurant for a taste of soul food.”

So, Nat, with your described growing connection with Billy, what are you dealing with internally? I wonder whether you have been holding dear to something. If so, how long?

“Well, Marshall, you’re on to something. The job I retired from took up 20 years of my life. It was a job I earned. I first worked the front desk at the hotel. I saw no future, no room for advancement. My supportive wife urged me to attend ‘Hospitality College.’ I was accepted and finished first in my class. I was the only African-American in my class. The hotel hired me as assistant manager of the restaurant-bar. A year later, my supervisor retired. I felt ready to fit right in. They hired someone else, a white man. I was livid and nearly quit. My wife helped me keep my head straight. Well, this dude didn’t work out. He left and miracle of miracles, the job became mine. They soon realized my abilities. A couple of years went by and I was awarded a recognition for achieving goals the hotel set. Those goals were met for years. I retired because as payment for my achievement, they decided to hire a younger white dude and pay him good money. They offered me a desk clerk position or restaurant host. I declined. I was pissed off, Marshall. We decided to relocate and contact Billy. Here we are, my wife and me. I’m angry, bored, and tired of the racial matters.”

We stopped and agreed to meet again. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Marshall Greenstein, a Cassadaga resident, holds a master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and is a licensed marriage and family counselor and a licensed mental health counselor in New York state. He has regular office hours at Hutton and Greenstein Counseling Services, 501 E. Third St., Suite 2B, Jamestown, 484-7756. For more information or to suggest topics, email editorial@observertoday.com.