I think airport conversations, the ones that happen while you're waiting for your flight, are the most interesting conversations you can have.
Why? Who knows? Could it be that the possibility of dying within the next few hours, the fault of a drunken pilot steering while wearing beer goggles, causes people to intimate information they otherwise wouldn’t? Or is it perhaps the realization that you’ll probably never see the person you’re rambling to again, so you can burden him/her with your darkest secrets? Then again, maybe there’s something about flying the friendly skies that makes everybody, y’know, friendlier.
It remains a mystery.
Whatever the reason, people tend to be looser and more honest on planes and in the terrible/overpriced bars in the airports. Flying is like alcohol though; folks probably dance better on planes too. Indeed, I’ve concluded that airports are like dive bars for professional-types; it’s the one context in which us uptight professional schmucks feel comfortable being honest and saying what we really feel (although we are still not quite as inclined to take an undesirable person home—and wake up with a guilty conscience—as we are in a bar).
With that in mind, an elderly, white gentleman struck up a conversation with me in the Denver airport, one week after the 2012 Elections. I took a very early flight back to Seattle after speaking at an event, and although I was very tired, he was genuinely friendly and a conversation very organically happened. This guy was a handsome older gentleman—the type of white dude that I would like to look like in my 60s IF I had any desire whatsoever to be white when I was in my 60s. I don’t (and can’t). But he resembled Dennis Farina in “Snatch”—dark (I thought that he was of Hispanic descent when I first met him), elegant, sharp, but with just enough dirty old white man to keep them honest.
I’ll refer to him as “Dennis.”
Dennis noticed my “First Americans for Obama” t-shirt—asked me what I thought of the election. I knew it was a set-up from the start; my dear grandmother used to do the same thing. She’d oftentimes ask a question, not because she wanted to hear my opinion, but because she wanted to give me hers.
I gave it anyway—I’ve been missing my ol’ granny lately.
I told Dennis the typical boilerplate blather: “I’m an independent, blah, blah, I don’t really dig either party, blah, blah, still, I think these elections make clear that a person simply cannot lie their way into the presidency, blah, blah, blah, by the way, did Romney even have a platform?”
I also remarked about the brilliant trap that President Obama laid, with the DREAM Act, and how the silly Republicans fell for it, hook, line and sinker and how that ostensibly lost the presidency for them. I said something to the effect of, “Those sorts of strategies show that the days of expecting to win or lose by appealing to the cigar club are effectively over.”
Dennis was a good listener. In fact, I verbally complimented him on his listening ability and how I wanted to be as good a listener as he. Intent. Focused, even though one could plainly see the pained look upon his face. Especially at the last comment—upon hearing the “cigar club” comment, his face scrunched up, very ugly, like that ghastly picture of Kim Kardashian crying. Yuck.
He couldn’t be an amazing listener any longer.
Dennis retorted, “You know what I see? What was your name again? Thank you. Gyasi, I see divisiveness. I see a country divided and this is probably the most divided this country has ever been.”
He continued, “If Obama had shown more of a willingness to be conciliatory, maybe it wouldn’t be like this. I’m not saying that the Republicans have been perfect, but the country was never divided like this under a Republican president. Bush, Bush, Reagan, you name him—it wasn’t like this.”
I tried my hardest to emulate Dennis. He set an amazing example of how to listen, even when you thought the other person was full of fecal matter. I held my tongue—channel Dennis—as he concluded.
“If this Nation continues with this divisiveness, this country is going toward a really destructive path. Obama should be the person to bring us together, yet he’s tearing us apart.”
Now mind you: I’m not an Obama apologist—I think that he’s a very good president who can be great. At this moment in time, he’s far from great and, although he has been exemplary in his understanding of Tribal issues, has made some decisions that make me wonder what the heck he’s thinking. I’m also not a Democrat apologist—they have many of the same flaws, in the big picture, as the Republican Party. At this point, Dennis was so nice that I didn’t necessarily want to offend him or be brisk with him. Still, facts are facts, and the notion that Obama is the cause of the divisiveness in the Nation is not something that I was prepared to silently let ride.
I thought about it—how can I be diplomatic, yet honest, to this handsome, yet crazily dishonest, man?
“Dennis, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think you’re completely off—I respect your opinion, but not your history. Let me explain. I think I can honestly say that my reading of history shows that the Nation has always been divided. The only thing is that rich, white dudes like yourself didn’t have to care about us poor people’s side of the divide before. Dennis…seriously? Never been this divided? Unless there was a huge hoax, like the reports that we landed on the moon, this country had a civil war with hundreds of thousands of Americans killed. That’s pretty divided, I’d say. I also think that the country was fairly divided when your people massacred thousands of Natives at any particular massacre site. I could name a few. Believe it or not, us Natives—as much as we seem to like white stuff—didn’t agree with those massacres of women and children. I also suspect that black folks did not agree with slavery or Japanese people with internment camps. But maybe the country’s citizens weren’t divided because Natives and blacks weren’t citizens yet.”
“But seriously, that doesn’t seem divided to you? Yet now, because a few white rednecks want to secede because babies are getting treated by a doctor and a black man told that doctor to treat those babies, the country is the most divided it’s ever been? I can’t really see that one, Dennis.”
Dennis was such a good listener that he never said another word. Instead, we sat quietly until the “Special Needs Boarding Section” was called for boarding.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and his family also belongs to the Suquamish Nation. He wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways) which you can get at DKMAI.com. He is also co-authoring a new book called “Of Course I’m a Boy, Silly!”, and the website and publishing company for that handy-dandy book is CutBankCreekPress.com (coming soon). He also semi-does the twitter thing at twitter.com/BigIndianGyasi
A version of this article appeared at Racialicious.com.