Pug

I hadn’t really thought much about race until he asked me a simple question: “Damn, college boy, are you gonna be white your whole life?”

I’m not sure I have an earliest recollection of Maurice Scott. We met in the late eighties, when I was a student at the University of Texas and working mornings at the state capitol. We were both sergeants-at-arms for the House of Representatives, glorified errand-runners really, except that for me, with duties initially consisting of manning a copy machine and folding flags that had flown over the statehouse dome, Maurice’s position looked genuinely glorious. He was in charge of the House’s interoffice mail run, and he spent his days in a big white Suburban with “Texas House of Representatives” written large on its doors in black block letters, delivering memos and packages to buildings around the state office complex and taking large constituent mail-outs to the main post office across town. That may not resemble the dream job of your youth, but if you had been stuck down in the sergeants’ holding tank, a dank basement bunker known appropriately as the Pit, breathing in the sour exhalations of forty other hungover, smart-ass college kids, awaiting a call from, say, the secretary of the distinguished House member from Holliday, who needed you to lick 1,500 envelopes containing an urgent dispatch back to the district and maybe fetch said member’s comb from the glove box of his car, you too would have dreamed of hopping in the Sub with Maurice and spending some time in the sunshine.

At that level of remove, Maurice carried the air of an Independent Man. He was in his mid-fifties, black, and looked like B. B. King, almost short, almost round, and always dressed in a coat, tie, and pocket square. He sang, “Yo baby, yo baby, yo,” as he strolled the Capitol corridors, responding to calls of “What’s happening, Mo-Man?” from everybody he passed with a loud “Ain’t nothing to it” or, if it was a lady who’d wondered what was going on, a simple “you.” This was his career, and he’d made himself a fixture of state governance. I was in my early twenties, white, and being a sergeant was what I did when I wasn’t sitting in class or on my couch drinking beer; it was principally a way to pay for all that brew.

But while there’s no first memory, there is a strongest one. A few months into my two-year tenure with the sergeants, I became one of “Maurice’s boys,” one of the guys he’d ask for specifically when he needed someone to ride with him and do the heavy lifting. That meant that most days my entire five-hour shift was spent riding around town with him, shooting the breeze and listening to the black community radio station broadcast out of East Austin. We’d make quick work of our appointed rounds and then pick up lunch at a soul food place on the east side and park down by the university to watch girls and eat. Eventually I became a steady enough presence in the Sub that a photo of Hank Williams Jr. appeared there from out of the blue, cut out of a newspaper and taped to the dash. It was a symbol of Maurice’s embrace, as he liked to put it, of my people and our music. I think he said something further about not wanting me to feel so alone when we were making our runs.

So, as to the strongest specific memory: I distinctly recall, on two different occasions in the Sub with Maurice, pulling up to a stoplight between the Capitol and campus. I was driving—Maurice would almost always have me drive—the windows were down, and we found ourselves sitting to the right of a car driven by a large, ugly black man who looked as if he were having one of the benchmark bad days by which a life is measured. On both occasions, Maurice surveyed the scene and started to giggle. Then he ducked down below the dashboard so it looked as if I were alone in the car, turned his head toward me, and yelled, “Hey, nigger!” at the top of his lungs, past me, and out my window. In my memory I hear him laughing so hard that the only sound he makes is a whistling through his nose, and I see myself in utter panic, a refugee from lily-white suburbia who looks as though he has just caught himself in the zipper of his pants, all wide-eyed shock, pain, and shame.

THERE WERE 1,500 or so students at Westlake High School, in Austin, when I graduated in 1985, and four of them were black: two brothers from a family named Lyons and a brother and sister named, ironically enough, or so some of us joked, Amos. The Lyons had just moved to Texas from Jamaica, so conversation with them was either about Bob Marley or, with even less relevance, the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, exchanges that the Lyons themselves seldom instigated. The Amos kids, on the other hand, were too brainy to visit with much. All I really remember of the Amos in my grade, Oscar, was that one day, after being intimidated by something particularly heady he’d said in class, I started calling him Oscrates. Like Socrates. I thought that was pretty clever.

The concept of race relations was strictly hypothetical. What I knew about race had come from my parents. My dad was an Episcopal priest who’d grown up dirt-poor in North Carolina, and he had run a black church in Rocky Mount in the early sixties, before I was born. I’d ask him what that was like, looking for crosses burned in our yard or bricks thrown through our windows, hoping for a hero from the civil rights wars who was related to me. He never lingered too long on answers to those questions, steering the talk instead to the time he and other local church leaders sat up all night in a Rocky Mount hotel room with Martin Luther King Jr., drinking gin and discussing the movement. My dad would talk about

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