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A BETTER MAN THAN I



"I would guess it is going to cost about $350 to repair the porch roof," the large man said as we stood atop the roof of my house.

"When can you do it?" I asked.

"Right now, if you give me the okay.

"Let's do it."

I headed toward the ladder leading down to the ground where the other three men were standing.

"Charlie, have the nigger grab those bundles of shingles and bring them up here," shouted the large, heavyset white man.

I watched as a black man climbed out of the old pick-up truck and began to unload the singles.

"Tell that nigger to get a move on. We don't have all day," the man yelled again.

The other three white men laughed and then leaned against the small trailer attached to the back of the rusty old truck. The black man loaded two bundles at a time, until all the shingles were atop the roof of my house. I watched as the black man, with no difficulty at all, climbed the ladder and placed the shingles onto the roof.

Every other word that came out of the man's mouth was "nigger, do this" and "nigger, do that. I looked into the face of the black man as he traveled up and down the ladder doing as he was ordered.

"Load that hot tar into the buckets and have the nigger haul them up to me," yelled the man as he stood with his hands in his pockets.

As the black man pulled the tar buckets up onto the roof with a rope, I went up the ladder and walked over to the man who was giving him directions.

"Is it necessary for you to talk to him like that?" I asked.

"Oh! He does not mind. He is use to it."

"But I am not use to it," I said.

I stood the entire time as the black man loaded bucket after bucket of tar up onto the roof. The other three white men just stood beside the truck and drank sodas.

"Move that nigger along. He's cutting into my Miller time," yelled one of the men sitting by the truck.

The large man on the roof headed down the ladder. He had a word or two with the three men, but I could hear all four of them laugh after he spoke to them. I stood watching the black man as he mopped the black tar out onto the roof.

"I don't suppose it will mean anything to you if I apologize for how they were speaking to you," I said.

"It don't bother me no more," he said.

"Then you are a better man than I am," I replied.

All at once, the black man stopped mopping and looked up into my face. He shook his head and said, "You did more today than most white folks would do."

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and went back to work. I went back down the ladder and walked inside the house. About an hour later, there was a knock at the front door.

"All done," said the large white man.

I took out my checkbook and wrote him a check for the stated amount. I walked back outside where the men were waiting beside the truck; the black man was washing himself with the water hose. When he was done, he looked up and smiled at me.

"THE GUY WHO DID ALL THE WORK GETS A FIVE DOLLAR TIP!" I yelled.

Then I handed the black man a folded up one $100 bill. The man never even looked at the bill. He just reached out, took it from my hand and he stuck it in his front pocket. He smiled at me, walked out to the truck and climbed into the back. The five of them drove away.

It must have been around seven 'clock when I heard a knock on my front door. When I opened it, there stood the black man with a woman and two children, each dressed in what appeared to be their Sunday best.

"Thought you might like to go out to dinner with the family," he said.

"I think the wife and I would enjoy that," I said as I smiled and turned to go get my wife.

The six of us went out to an all-you-can-eat buffet and boy could his kids eat. They were well mannered and very polite. Harry and I became rather good friends over the next year. Harry quit the roofing business and tried his hand at automobile detailing, a business which he operated until his death almost three years later. Harry's wife and children moved back to California. I never heard from them again.

I hope that in some small way, I influenced how Harry's children thought about white people. That is the least I could do for someone who was a better man that I.



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