It’s a shame, really. One bad experience, if it’s frightening enough, can shape a person’s feelings about a thing for the rest of their lives. When I was five, I was taken to a dentist who thought he’d save a little cash on Novocain while drilling a cavity by simply telling me to “be a man.” It was over 20 years before I could even go into a dentist’s office again, and nearly 30 before I could do so without sweats and anxiety.
This is a survival response. If you are attacked by the sabre toothed tiger once, you don’t go near it again. If you jam a fork into an electrical outlet and live, you develop a negative connotation with it, and exercise extreme caution in the future.
I was somewhere in my early twenties, living in Gainesville Florida and working as a cook at a Pizza Hut. (One of life’s ubiquitous rites of passage.) It was late—maybe 3:00 A.M., and the four of us on the closing shift had retired behind the restaurant with a case of beer. There was a grassy hillock that butted up against the parking lot that was pleasant for visiting, drinking, and spinning stories.
As the last beer was popped, a pair of rednecks rounded the corner of the Waffle House that shared the parking lot next door. (Lest you think I am being politically incorrect here, for the entire duration of the encounter these people referred to themselves as rednecks, and I believe, as a point of pride, that is the manner in which they would have wanted to be addressed.) Behind them, another three rounded the corner.
A redneck at night on the weekend is a different sight than many might be used to. At night, they are in full plumage, a riot of color and noise. These wore “Brushpoppers,” the tightly fitted redneck equivalent of a long sleeved hawaiian shirt, big black Garth Brooks cowboy hats and snazzy boots, and the women (of which there only ever seemed to have been one) wore Rocky Mountains, a type of pants my wife refers to as “up the butt, slut” jeans.
They spied the box our case of beer had come in and ambled (moseyed?) over to us. Our seats on the hillock were such that sitting down, I was face to face with the tallest of them—a rangy young black man, terribly handsome and very, very muscular. They first wanted some beer, but when someone picked up the empty box, they decided they wanted us to go and make them pizza instead.
“Oh those assholes over there at the Pizza Hut,” I said jokingly, broadly indicating the four of us sitting there wearing our Pizza Hut uniforms, “they always cut out early. Here it is only three in the morning and they’re already sitting on their lazy butts!” Now, I thought that I was being funny and congenial. I really did. I have always been good with crowds, and it seemed like the thing to say. Apparently, you cannot always trust your instincts.
“‘Lenzo!” screeched the skinny, trampy redneckette with the stringy bleached-yellow hair. “They called you an asshole!” At precisely this moment the other fifteen rednecks, similarly attired, came striding from around the corner of the Waffle House, spotted the incipient altercation, and began running towards us.
“No, wait! That’s not what I…” I tried to explain as ‘Lenzo first removed his hat, then his festively colored Brushpopper, then replaced his hat—in preparation of the horrible beating to come.
All around me this phenomenon was being repeated by other rednecks getting ready to get their licks in, as the harridan-neck shrieked to them all that I had called ‘Lenzo an asshole and wanted to get my ass kicked. These people were obviously extremely intoxicated and there were at least fifteen of the twenty now geared up for battle. My friends were trying gamely to intervene but no one was listening—and once the stomping commenced, I had no confidence these people would know when to stop. I honestly felt like I was about to die.
‘Lenzo, all six-foot-seven or so of him, was standing right in front of me, dukes up, looking for all the world like a body-building cobra. I looked him straight in the eye, and began talking as fast as I could.
To this day I do not truly remember what it was that I said. I remember thinking that I was somehow disappointed in this young black man that he would be a part of what smacked so readily of a racist parking-lot confrontation, and I may have used language that appealed to what that felt like. I know I told him that I had never called him anything, I was telling a joke at my own expense, and that I could not, and would not fight him. I told him that I was very, very frightened. Whatever it was I said appeared to give him pause, as he lowered his fists and looked up over my shoulder.
“Is this the one called you an asshole ‘Lenzo?” came a new voice from behind me. ‘Lenzo raised his arms as if to say, “No, nevermind. This was all a mistake, let’s go home and get a good night’s rest.” Of course that didn’t occur. What did occur was that the redneck behind me threw all his weight into punching me in the back of the skull, throwing my world into a blurry tailspin. I was vaguely aware that my friends had leaped to their feet in a protective circle around me. I was also vaguely aware that this might be the last of my awarenesses.
As the rest of the ‘necks closed into killing range, ‘Lenzo sprang forward like some pulp-fiction hero, scooping the skull-punching ‘neck off the ground and flinging him over his shoulder. With the one ‘neck hanging in the air, ‘Lenzo bellowed at the rest that it was over, time to go, nothing more to see here. He waved, cajoled, and manhandled the highly charged and much irate group away and back around the side of the Waffle House.
I fell backward into the grass and gratefully listened to my friends rightly berating me for my stupidity in trying to get not only myself, but them as well, killed. My headache lasted two full days.
Nowadays I begin to become nervous whenever I find myself in a group of people wearing boots. I see those black hats as intelligence-leeching, belligerence-causing mechanisms of violence and discord. The thought of attending a Nascar event (or even writing about it here) gives me cold and sweaty palms. I know empirically that I am being foolish. Just because someone considers themselves a redneck does not mean they will automatically burst into violence at the least provocation, nor does it mean that they all want to see me dead because I didn’t call ‘Lenzo an asshole. But because of my experience, and my “survival instinct” I can’t seem to shake the fear. However, I will continue to try and overcome my prejudice of rednecks, and maybe one day, we can all live in peace and harmony.