Today was the second time I saw Dr. Rose in the grocery store. The first time was while it was still cold out, he was wearing a jacket and a longshoreman’s cap which was a little askew. That and the very slow way he was walking, lilting to the right ever so slightly, convinced me then that it would be distressing to greet my old professor. I convinced myself that he probably wouldn’t recognize me, knowing that we almost always overestimate what we meant to people who meant a great deal to us. I worried that he wouldn’t be himself. And so I ducked into the soup aisle so as not to encounter him face to face.
The first time I saw him today I did the same thing. Rushing past as he ambled along carried a quarter watermelon and a cantaloupe. He had a jacket on again, even though it was 80 degrees out, and a cap, not a knit one, sometime lighter but not a baseball cap. A baseball cap would not be right for Dr. Rose. I can’t imagine him ever wearing one. He always dressed so well, beautifully made trousers, a shirt and tie, and always a very classy sport coat. He walked carefully, never hurried; he also rarely chatted but he frequently smiled and laughed. Sometimes the laugh was killing, sometimes not.
Dr. Rose was my major professor in graduate school. He was a geographer who specialized in the spatial patterns of residential segregation. It was Dr. Rose who, in his explanation of the tipping point theory popular in the 70’s, flatly stated that “Blacks and Whites will never share the same space for very long.” He told me that the Black political ascendency in Detroit at the time was almost exclusively the function of the White exodus. There were no White people to run things so it was Black people’s turn.
His classes were notoriously difficult. He would assign a stack of dense academic articles for us to read and then, at the beginning of class, park himself halfway sitting on the table in front of a student victim and ask question after question about the meaning of the readings. He’d laugh at wrong answers, stand up to stroll to the next victim. When he sat in front of me, I was ready. His was the class for which I over-prepared, reading everything two and three times, wanting so badly the feeling of getting it right. And I often did, not always, but often enough to be hooked on his approval.
He explained to me privately that he had grown up in the South and knew how to deal with White people. He knew all the manners and how to accommodate. He said Black people in the North didn’t have that, they didn’t know how to hide and control their anger. I listened mostly because dialogue seemed out of order, like I was smart enough to even know what I didn’t know. Better to listen well and take notes. And that is what I did.
He flashed at me when I proposed that central city homes should be rehabbed for Black homeownership. “What makes you think that because I’m Black, I don’t want new things?” He was fierce when he said these things, like there was a possibility that his Southern manners and anger management training might be getting a little strained. I just put my head down and kept going. Be careful with your assumptions about what other people should have or want or do, that was his message. I listened to it.
At the time, I was living as a single parent although I was still legally married. I’d like to find some poetic, lyrical way to say it but everything was just extremely difficult, money, job, school, and child care. It wasn’t unusual to have my four-year old daughter sitting in a corner coloring during a class or a meeting, once during a particularly difficult meeting with Dr. Rose, she drew pictures on the back of his office chair.
He was in the next check-out line when we pulled up with our cart. “Dr. Rose?” I said, reaching over to shake his hand. “Jan Wilberg, do you remember me?” He smiled the big smile that could come after a good joke or before he zeroed in to shred a student’s analysis of a complicated theory.
In the car driving home, I told my husband the story about my daughter drawing on the back of Dr. Rose’s chair. “Did he mind?” he asked. And I told him, no, he didn’t mind. He’d had it hard coming up in the academic world; he had, I searched for the word, empathy for me. He treated me, a single mother with a four-year old drawing on his chair, as if I had every right to be in a serious, academic place. That was, at the time, a very big deal. Extraordinary and rare.
Anyway, that’s what he meant to me. I don’t know what I meant to him. But he sure seemed glad to see me today.
#23/100: 23rd essay in a series of 100 in 100 days.