I passed through Houston on Monday and found a lot of cheerful stoicism (“It could’ve been worse”) a month after Harvey had messed with Texas. Some boarded-up windows downtown, some houses awaiting demolition. A man told me his church was organizing volunteers to muck out houses hit by the hurricane. I only ever heard “muck out” in reference to cleaning a cow barn — in this case, they’d be ripping up carpet and rotten floorboards, pulling out sheetrock, spraying with fungicide. He’d gotten off light, so he was obligated to help those who hadn’t, he said.
I like Houston. Named for Sam, who skipped the fiasco of the Alamo and was elected president of the Republic of Texas and then lent his name to a major metropolis as the Alamo became a car-rental company. It’s an underrated city. It’s Texas but not so full of itself. You meet people with money who still drink cheap beer and don’t talk about the texture of it. It’s enormous, large enough to contain New York, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami, so it lacks the clear-cut cultural identity that those cities have. It’s more like Opportunityville. But I like that attitude — that gratitude leads you to do grungy work in behalf of others.
I wished I could’ve been in Little Rock on Monday to celebrate the day back in 1957 when the president of the United States mobilized 1,000 paratroopers to guard nine black teenagers so they could attend Central High School, which was still segregated three years after the Supreme Court had ruled it illegal. Six girls and three boys marched on over to the school, surrounded by men carrying rifles, the nine all dressed up and hopeful — years later, Minnijean Brown said, “I figured, ‘I’m a nice person. Once they get to know me, they’ll see I’m okay. We’ll be friends.’ ”
Up in Minnesota, I was 15 and I watched on television as the mob of furious whites blocked their way, screaming, spitting, and it showed you how ugly democracy can be. The mob was simply expressing public opinion, as Gov. Orval Faubus knew, and he took his stand for segregation, and thus his name goes down in the Hall of Shame. No cafe ever named a sandwich for him, nobody named a library for him. He’s a nobody.
A beloved uncle of mine was from Arkansas and he defended segregation and had to face my sainted grandmother who believed that people of color were better-looking, harder- working, more loyal to friends and family, and closer to God. His mind was changed a few years later when he was sick in the hospital and was befriended by a black man and came to admire him deeply. This is how it goes in my family: We cling to ignorance and superstition, but when the light comes on, we don’t close our eyes to it. We’re nice people. You get to know us, you find out we’re okay, like Minnijean.
I still admire her for her naive belief that niceness could win the day, that those horrible people, their faces contorted by hatred, yelling every ugly thing they could think of, might somehow come around if they just sat down to lunch with her and saw her good manners, heard her good grammar as she spoke with feeling about the books she loved and the good things she hoped to do in life.
In spite of everything, I still believe that the gentle people will prevail over the bullies and braggarts, fascinating though they be. We arise in the morning, eat our oatmeal with raisins, do our Daily Dozen and take public transportation to work, where we sit through a meeting about ambient parallel interface with emulated tab data on the DRT thread affecting the articulated download menu out-sent via the alternate micron converter and we manage to look alert and interested and return to our cubicle with the cartoons pinned to the walls and we write a loving note to our daughter and call a dying friend and send a check to the Home for the Moody, knowing that one day, perhaps tomorrow, we’ll find the envelope with the form letter on our desk, “This is to inform you that as of a week from Friday, your employment here at NorComm will be terminated.” And we’ll simply go on as before.
I just want to say a word in behalf of nice people. My uncle was redeemed from racism by a black angel who held his hand in the hospital. I believe it happens all the time.
Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.