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Under the Sun

Cynthia Oi

Wednesday, April 9, 2003


Uh-huh, chicken hekka
and a few ‘Ooo sha-shas’


A FEW months back, I reconnected with a woman who had been a good friend when we worked together at a newspaper in Connecticut. In a spare moment, she'd Googled me, found my Internet address and e-mailed, asking if I remembered her after decades of lost contact.

Of course I did, I e-mailed back. How could I forget our 20-something misadventures. Like the time we drove for hours early one Sunday morning just to have breakfast at Chock Full O' Nuts in New York City and got stranded on I-84 on the way home because we were low on cash and had bought only enough gas -- so we thought -- to get us there and back.

Or the snowy night we sledded through a steep field stubbled with cornstalks after harvest and ended up lodged upside down in a drainage ditch, the sled trapping us in the icy hollow.

"Everyday People" always revives an Indian summer afternoon, dancing with a crowd on the sidewalk and the stoop outside her apartment house when a neighbor -- in defiance of the landlord's edict for quiet -- perched four speakers on a fire escape to blast Sly Stone and his family's sounds up and down the street.

That song had been bouncing around in my head when the phone rang a couple of weeks ago. The caller was an older man who was not very happy about my opinions and thoughts about President Bush. He berated me, questioned my professional qualifications, called me a liberal (which, if I had to wear a label, I'd paste proudly on my forehead) and demanded to know how old I was. When I told him, he crowed vindication. "Too young," he huffed, to know the hardships of living through the Depression and world wars and a catalog of other bad times. He continued on, suggesting that my racial heritage had something to do with my unpatriotic notions.

He was kind of a jerk, but I let him rant because there's really no percentage in arguing with someone who so passionately believes you're an idiot. I bit my tongue, saying little but for a string of "uh-huh, uh-huhs" and delivering the standard "Thank you for calling" to a dial tone after he hung up on me.

Still, I wish we'd been able to talk. Maybe if he'd gotten over his mad, he would have been able to tell me more about himself, his experiences during the Depression and the war years, how he came to form his views on what a patriotic American is.

I could have told him how hurtful it is to be viewed with suspicion and disdain just because of skin color and eye shape, as I was when my Connecticut friend introduced me to her father. He had fought in the Pacific theater and was cold and taciturn in my presence -- until the evening of the sledding incident, when I made a huge pot of chicken hekka for the family. Somehow, the concoction of poultry and green onions eroded his prejudice.

Maybe the complaining caller and I could have found common ground, too. Or maybe I fool myself to think talking would have brought us some measure of understanding. There's no way to know.

So I'm driving to the market when the Sly words blow out on the oldies station: "There is a blue one who can't accept the green one for living with the fat one for trying to be a skinny one; the long hair that doesn't like the short hair for being such a rich one that will not help the poor one."

Then I hear the silly "Ooo, sha-sha" interlude leak from the car stopped next to me, a low-slung, champagne-colored modified Honda, the teenage boy at the wheel head-bobbing to the beat. When I flash him a thumbs up for his musical choice, he twitches a sheepish grin, as if embarrassed that he and an uncool gray-haired woman share tastes in sounds. The light changes and he accelerates quickly, but not before I see his lips form the song's words of youthful tolerance: "Different strokes for different folks."





Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin for 25 years.
She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com
.

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