Sunday was the first truly gorgeous day after a long winter — 65 degrees and sunny, perfect for doing yard work.
A regrettable decision, in retrospect.
I’d been meaning to get rid of an old lawn mower, so I hauled it from my shed to the curb, figuring someone would want it.
Soon, a pickup truck slowed in front of my house, and a woman in the passenger seat asked if I was giving the mower away. Yes, I replied, grateful to recycle it.
A man hopped out of the driver’s side, came around and opened the tailgate.
As he reached over to pick up the mower, I showed him where I had used clamps to repair the handle, which had snapped off. “I kind of jerry rigged it,” I said.
He loaded the mower into the truck bed, laughed and said, “I’d use another word for it, but it begins with N and you can’t say that anymore.”
He drove away, and I stood there confused and uncertain about what I had just heard.
Surely he couldn’t have meant the “N word.” I had never heard it in the context of fixing something in a haphazard way, as “jerry rig” implies. Even in my politically incorrect, ethnocentric upbringing, the N word was not acceptable.
Of course, I had to find out. Sure enough . . . the Urban Dictionary definition of “jerry rigged” (a World War II term based on a nickname for German soldiers) included a list of synonyms. “N-rigged” was among them.
Seeing that on the computer screen was awful, and I’m trying not to beat myself up for failing to question what the man meant.
The encounter raised other questions:
Why did I so casually use a term that insults one ethnic group, yet not realize I was hearing something even more offensive to another?
Would the couple have stopped to inquire about the mower if they saw an African-American man in the yard?
How do I squelch the stereotype that white males who drive pickup trucks are good ol’ boys who are pleasant enough — as long as you share the same skin tone?
I also have to fend off a default response that, while cynical, would have come in handy on an otherwise pleasant afternoon: Expect to be disappointed by human behavior; be surprised when people turn out to be genuinely good and kind.
Seems like it should be the other way around.