On Becoming a “Black Friend.”

I recall once driving across country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta back in 1986.  I used to enjoy my trips across country.  I have tried several routes and loved taking in the experience.  On this occasion I remember turning off my radio in Southern California, and driving across country in silence.  As I was taking I the trip visually, I began to notice that I was among very few Black people.  Without preparing to take any sort of poll, by the time I got to Atlanta, I had noticed that I saw only two cars with Black people in it on the entire trip.  There was nothing scientific about this methodology, of course.  You just heard the extent of it.  What I recall though, and I told myself at the time…I’m in an ocean of White people.  

When does a fish begin to notice that he is in water?  Who knows.  I had always been surrounded by White people, for the most part.  I never gave it much thought.  Now I live in a suburb of Columbus that is quite tiny.  It is a bedroom community, surrounded by other ‘burbs, and the City of Columbus.  Being landlocked, the population can’t really grow, but the tax base has, so it is doing well for itself as a city.  

It’s a cute, quaint little place.  In normal times it has little festivals and parades on a regular schedule which have gone on for decades.  Many from around the metro area come to see them.  Although nit is not my thing, it is a place where people come, (mostly women), to do a sort of antiquing expedition.  There’s a whole economy built up around it.  There are various antique shops, and bespoke clothing, but then there are the additional things, which I never knew were part of the whole thing.  In addition to those are hotels, bed and breakfasts, spas, and restaurants.  This isn’t something guy friends do a great deal, but as I learned, women come to my little town, book rooms, spend all day in spas and shop for antiques.  It’s kind of amazing how involved this whole thing is.  I’d never have known it existed without having stumbled upon the practice once.  

Most of my neighbors are White.  To find another Black person in my neighborhood, I usually have to find a mirror.  I have seen the demographics for my community, but I have rarely seen who those other Black people are in almost two decades.  None of that is really shocking for me.  That has been my experience since birth, if not maybe a bit more homogenous now.  So, I have some experience being someone’s “Black friend.”  I haven’t kept count on that score throughout my life.  It’s fairly ordinary, like getting mail.  But, this past July, I became someone’s Black friend again.  This time, it feels different.  Really different.

Just about 8 weeks ago, the process began for remodeling my very old bathroom.  I bought an 85 year old house 18 years ago, which makes it 103 years old now.  For the first 12 years, I lived next door to a woman whose father built their home.  He was a physician, and a professor at OSU.  She was born the year her house and my house were built, so she was 97 when she moved away to live with family.  She was a cheerful, talkative lady, so I got lots of local history from her.  I think the entire twelve years I knew her, it was just one long conversation.  She just stared talking at the time I moved in, and something would happen and I’d have to leave, like running an errand, or sundown or something, and I’d leave.  I suspect she just kept talking.  Then when I was close enough, she was already talking, and I just had to jump back in.  If she saw me jogging, she’d pull over, ask me if I wanted a ride…and be talking.  We could be two blocks from our houses, and she’d offer.  I’d decline, and she’d drive home.  When I got there, she’d be right in the middle of our conversation.  I’m pretty sure it continued that way for about 12 years.  

If you don’t particularly enjoy remodeling, I recommend not buying a 100 year old home.  As cute as these old communities are, the list of projects can be immense.  I have spent years updating things that I never imagined having to do, but I do love my house and my community, so it has been a pleasure.  But with all of the mechanicals, and so on, I am just getting around to projects like master bath, and kitchen.  In late July, I began my bathroom remodel process, which is how I began the latest chapter of being a Black friend.

In fairness, I can’t say how V. thinks about it.  “Black friend” is something that we are all familiar with in American culture, and my new friend V. Is from Ukraine.  “Black friend” has some negative connotations, and they are not implied here as the credentialed expertise offered by those who want to offer that knowing one means knowing all.  I have no reason to believe that V. thinks that way.  It is just that V is a newly arrived Ukrainian immigrant.  

Everything about this man is interesting.  It is difficult to know where to begin to describe him.  His story is just so interesting.  I guess the best way is to just relate how I came to know him.  V arrived at my door to do demolition to my old bathroom with his 16 year old son.  His son is the spitting image of his dad, only a bit taller.  They went about tearing the old bathroom down to the studs for a few days.  It was July, so it was hot, difficult work.  They tore through a ceiling which led to the attic, so insulation had to be removed, and the work became extremely hot.  I could not keep the house cool enough where they were working, so I went out and got a bunch of Gatorade and water, and put my camping cooler next to wear they were working so that they could have something to drink close by.  

When I gave it to V at first, he looked at me puzzled.  He asked, “what is this?”  I explained, and said that I did not want them to be uncomfortable.  V is formal and serious at first.  He bowed his head and thanked me.  It seemed almost out of time in its formality.  

The remodeling experience in an old house is fascinating and annoying.  So much has changed since these houses were built, that a great deal has to be adapted to the modern way of living.  It is not just a matter of updating the appearance.  It is also changing the flow and purpose of much of the ways that rooms work.  I wont go into too much detail about that, only to say that we are so different as people from how we were 100 years ago that the adjustment to physical structures is surprisingly involved.  This remodel stripped away not only stripped away superstructure and substructure, but also replaced old methods with new methods.  It skipped a generation or two of evolution.  

So…the annoying aspect involves going down to the small details of how something should be done.  It is far more decision making than one expects.  This homeowner went into the process with a designer, explaining what I wanted, selecting the materials, and writing checks.  I thought that would be the extent of it.  I have no design or carpentry, or plumbing, or electrician expertise, so I did not expect to have to advise on it.  It was an annoying challenge to have to offer details in these areas.  

Demolition was simple enough.  They just tear it up and carry it out.  Once the construction began, the questions began.  The plumber asked me how I wanted to route the plumbing.  The shower has no mechanical controls, only electronic, so he asked me which line would be 1 thru 5.  He asked me which way different electronic devices should be physically oriented in the walls…etc.  My view was, you’re the plumber…just make it work.  That’s not how I answered, of course.  I just say that to explain how completely detailed the details became.  We discussed everything right down to nails, screws, putty and silicone…and that was just the plumber.

Once V and his son got around to the carpentry, the questions were a bit more about aesthetics.  This is how V became a bit more interesting.  I bought travertine tile that I found beautiful and fascinating.  It is from some hot spring in Turkey which created this hypnotic design that I absolutely love.  Once V got ahold of them, he asked how they should be applied.  I said, what’s easier for you?  He wasn’t interested in that.  He demonstrated different orientations of the tile, and then said what was is favorite.  I said, “I’ll trust your judgment.”  

When I walked away and thought about it, I started to wonder exactly what he meant.  He speaks English fairly well, but uses short choppy sentences, and meaning can get lost.  When I left the area and sat down and thought about the conversation, I realized that I didn’t have the understanding that I should have.  In my mind’s eye, I wasn’t sure what his version meant.  What I thought he meant did not seem like it would look right.  I didn’t go back and interrupt and change anything.  I just watched as they began.  It started out well, so I thought, so far, so good.  The detail in how V thought about how it would look, I came to understand, was far beyond how I hoped it would look.  The tiles themselves were all different.  They were cut from nature, so they had no regular design.  They are also quite heavy, each and every single tile, not just the packages.  V took it upon himself to vary them as he unpacked them, and tried not to place two next to one another that were similar.  He randomized them.  He took that upon himself.  It took extra effort, and for no benefit to himself.  I was glad that I trusted him.

As the room started to come together, I stopped looking or worrying about how it was coming together.  And when he had a question about how something should be, I started asking him what his preference was.  There were still many of these decisions, but he had provided himself to me about his aesthetic sense, and his skill, so I just ok’d his preferences.  As, as I hung out watching what I saw as a work of art come together, we talked about just normal things.  Once we started to talk about everyday things, he started to talk like my former next door neighbor.  He could really just unload details, and it was so interesting.

V moved to the US 4 years ago from Western Ukraine.  He is the oldest child in his family, and several years younger than me.  He asked me first what year I was born, and we were both shocked that I am older.  It’s not that he looks old, but he definitely does not look young.  Two of his younger brothers moved to the US a couple of decades ago, and started the business that he now works for.  I met one of his younger brothers when they did the estimate, and when V came by to begin two weeks later, I thought it was the same guy.  My wife had to explain to me that it wasn’t.  

One of the things I asked V was about the music that he played a couple of times while working.  I thought it was some cultural music, and I wanted to know about it.  When would I have a chance for that sort of thing again, I thought.  As it turned out, it was Christian music.  The singing was in Ukrainian…sometimes Russian.  That’s when I learned that V was not just religious, but he was deeply religious.  V is one of those guys who, if you did not ask, you might not realize how religious he is.  He’s quiet about it, but Moore than willing to share if asked.  

Over the next couple of weeks, we got to know one another better.  He’d talk about his kids.  He has nine.  One of his middle kids helped him until school started.  Awesome kid.  And with regard to V’s religiosity, there is no way to tip toe into it.  This blows me away whenever I think of it.  By this point, you need to appreciate that V is a really, really hard working, pleasant, talented man.  He is a pleasure to be around.  What I learned from him at this time is that he was born in a prison.  His mother was persecuted for her faith, and imprisoned in the Soviet Union.  I lack the words to express what a decent, friendly man V is, and his lack of bitterness humbles me.  His family, including both parents, is still together.  He and his brothers own houses next to one another out in the country, about 20 miles from here.  

As the project came together, I became more and more anxious to see it finished.  It was exciting to see.  On the other hand, as it came together, I began to not look forward to seeing him come over every day.  So, I asked him if I could take a picture of him and his son, if they would sign some cards that my wife bought for the purpose.  We planned to make a memento of the occasion of the remodel, and wanted the artisan’s signatures.  He agreed in that humble way…he bowed his head and thanked me.  

Just yesterday he finished what is probably his last detail.  By now we were greeting each other as friends and it is wonderful how familiar we have become.  I thanked him for everything for about the 100th time, and shook his hand for the third time, as he left.  Then I saw him pull back into the driveway and come back into the house.  I thought he had left a tool or something.  He pulled out his phone and asked for my number, and asked me to come to his house to hang out.  Everyone should have a friend like V.

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