‘Lost’ feeling provides challenge

Last article we met Nat, who had recently retired after 20 years in the hospitality industry. He reportedly was released from his position as manager of a high-end hotel. He achieved goals set by the hotel.

Earlier years found him attending school to improve his professional position. Throughout the years of service, Nat faced untold experiences as an African-American man in a predominately “white” hotel. Patrons were white, but he got to know one gentleman and his family who he met and with whom he created a friendship.

Billy, a man I came to know professionally, vacationed with his family at this hotel. Nat became aware that Billy somehow overrode any racial differences with the several patron populations at the hotel. Love of food and enjoyment of life appealed to Billy and eventually his family connected with Nat’s family.

When confronted with a harsh reminder, I read of racial bias, Nat’s job was taken by a younger “white” man. The hotel offered entry-level sounding jobs, which Nat declined. He retired and soon continued his favorable growing connection with Billy. Nat and family relocated to this area.

So, Nat, thank you for returning. How did you feel after the first session?

“To be honest, I wondered why I came and talked with you, a white dude. I called Billy and we met up. He listened to me. I kind of feel lost. I’m not sure you can understand, Marshall.

“While you have your college degree and licenses to do your counseling work, tell me the truth, man, how can you possibly relate to me as a black man, an African-American? You have all these books and stuff; yet, can you really believe you can help me?

“Come on now, Marshall, before I can open up my heart, where’s the trust? You might offer me words of wisdom, but, man, can you identify with me as an adult African-American man? I know that Billy thinks highly of you. The two of you, I hear, shared personal things. He says you two worked well together on some tough cases.

“Man, I sit here because Billy, a good man I relate well with, thinks you can be of some help to me. God, I sure hope he’s not B.S’ing me, cause if I decide to open up my heart to you, I need to know some things. First, will I feel safe? Will I trust you ever? Will you have my back? You see, Marshall, I’ve been taking risks, monumental ones for years. Working to support my family like you work to support your family, well, there’s lots of differences that can weigh a man down. I never thought that years of keeping things to myself would surface to face me square up. Know what I’m saying, Marshall?”

Nat paused for a moment. I started to listen to the sound of my own heartbeat. Nat’s early sentiments struck me deeply. Yes, we were in a professional therapy office replete with plaques and profound worldly sayings on the walls. At this moment in time, I was experiencing a new and strange affect. I’ve counseled African-American men before, gained some trust, and valued their life changes.

Nat, however, I believed would be my teacher unlike other African-American men, and yes, women, who I counseled professionally. Nat struck a vulnerable place in my psyche. Thank you, Nat. I hear and value the many questions you asked. I want to say that each individual who enters my office has a unique story. I explicitly agree with you. I have no identification with you as an African-American man. No matter my experience, I’d be lying to say that I understand. I don’t. I am prepared to hear your story, however much you feel like relating to me. Yes, you’re right Nat. Trust and safety are foremost in this space. This goes for you as well as everyone. I welcome the opportunity to build an alliance based upon trust and, yes, deep abiding love with you. What is said here remains here unless anyone speaks of planned lethality.

Otherwise, time may serve well, I pray and hope, for you to let me, a white man, into your life. If you choose not to, I support that choice without prejudice. What do you say, Nat?

“You know, if Billy didn’t trust you, I’d never come here. It’s too bad, no offense Marshall, that there’s no African-American therapists around here. I never thought to check in the larger cities. Course, do I want to search and find someone, to figure him or her out, and travel the distance? I might investigate that option. In the meantime, for today, I want your honest answer to a question. Can you do that for me, Marshall?” Yes, Nat. What’s your question? “I have two. One I’ll ask now and maybe the second one later. Aside from Billy, what are some of your life experiences with people of color, African-American people?”

Well, Nat, I can offer some of my experiences. Hope you’ll accept me holding back the details. “OK.” My first childhood friends were black. The neighborhood was African-American and Eastern-European Jews. I favored both. My favorite college professor, an African-American gentleman, taught me the riches of sociology in New York City and Brooklyn where I attended school. I am a major fan of early soul music. I worked with an African-American woman for a year on a road crew. We soon became friends. Yes, I can say that I dated a sister who spoke openly about relationships in her community. Does that begin to help Nat? “Let me think about it. Glad you held back on the details.” Me too, Nat. He agreed to call in a few days. 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.