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By Shane Gilreath
It was midday and high summer and I was standing in front of the Lazarus department store on Outer Loop in Louisville, Kentucky. My father, my aunt, Elsie, and I had just had dinner at a restaurant called River House with views of the Ohio River. I was 10-years old and was enamored by the boats and, in particular, the barges that could be seen moving, back and forth, on the current. I couldn’t believe they could carry so much cargo. On occasion, men could be seen, but just rarely. The boats looked like they were floating freely, roaming one of America’s great river-ways. Several times, I had gotten up from my seat, only to be told to sit back down. In such instances, my aunt would often give me more leeway than my father, so I would often try again, inching closer and closer to the glass from our table, dead center of the restaurant floor. If not of boats, I chattered incessantly about the Kentucky Derby. A D. Wayne Lucas filly had famously won that spring and I had, for months, been spellbound by the story. My aunt had promised to take me to Churchill Downs the next year, but not in the infield, I remember her saying, where it was muddy and alcohol flowed freely. My father had already suggested that I had caused undue hardships for the restaurant staff by making a special order, when we arrived at Jefferson Mall and I dashed for the doors of Lazarus, only quickly to be repelled by a parental roadblock. As a young man growing up in the South, manners had always been important and, with them, I was not experiencing my best day. My father refused to let me enter the store until I opened and held the door for my aunt. I had been known as a particularly polite child, utilizing my ‘yes, ma’ams” and “no, sirs” at will, but we were now locked in a standoff. It felt like a duel. I looked at him and then her, eyes back and forth. They both looked at me. It felt like it lasted an eternity before I, knowing my limitations, surrendered and opened the door. That’s what gentlemen were to do.
I thought of this event this week, when my mother, one of the girls, and I were accosted in the Kroger parking lot. Despite knowing that those who act in such ways are typically acting on their own insecurities, I’m repeatedly amazed at the insolence in others, and often wonder if I, and those reared like me, are a dying breed, the last of the few to have Old West standoffs at the doors of Lazarus. The barrage of profanities and insults thrown at us had put my mother – who received the barrage after I went into the store – to bed with high blood pressure. We are not accustomed to “heathen behavior,” as a grandmother might have said. Solutions to life’s problems should rarely, if ever, result in crude, boorish behavior in public parking lots. Growing up with a strict code of who we are, that’s decidedly not how we were raised or our expectations of others, despite our admitted faults. At least not in the Gilreath household.
As I was on my way home from church when this transpired, I thought of something Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. I looked it up for accuracy: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” I’d suggest that’s true of many of life’s situations. Not only do we decide how to behave and how we’re to treat each other – Golden Rule and all – we must equally decide if we’re on the side of the elephant or the mouse; if we’re neutral or on the side of the just. Individually, that’s our own battle at the Lazarus doors, and I encourage you to surrender, as I did, to kindness.
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