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November 27, 2023

Two Good Friends

By Jeremy Merillat

I remember meeting my dad's partner on the police force in the early 1990s. My dad: white male, early 30's, approx. 5'6", 160 pounds, put his hand gently on my back and steered me towards the entryway of a fast food restaurant. "Son, I want you to meet my partner, Mr. Clarence."

Mr. Clarence: black male, early 30's, approx. 6'1", 200 pounds, entered the establishment and strolled towards us with casual swag, stopping along the way to acknowledge the other patrons and workers who recognized him.

He greeted my dad with a handshake, followed by a hearty slap on the back, and explained his delay through measured, self-deprecative banter. My dad casually waved him off and said, "Clarence, let me introduce you to my son, Jeremy," Jeremy: white male, child, approx. 4'0", 50 pounds, Astros baseball cap, freckles.

Mr. Clarence knelt down and offered me his giant right paw, which I sensed from his generous smile was safe and friendly, one that sought to protect and serve. I extended my own, which he took, and shook playfully, making my entire arm wiggle like a rubber band. "Nice to meet ya, Mr. Jeremy," he said, and then added, "I hope you are a better driver than your dad," my arm still flapping wildly about in his firm grasp. My dad threw his hands up in surrender and rolled his eyes. Even at that age I knew that my dad had earned the unfortunate nickname of, 'Crash,' among his co-workers, a nickname I regrettably earned for myself years later in college after a weekend experiment as a valet driver. Mr. Clarence released my hand, stood, and turned to face my dad.

While they discussed their business, I stepped back and observed the ease with which they interacted, the sturdy confidence that enabled them to discuss a serious topic in a humorous way. I had gleaned much information about my dad's co-workers over the years by listening to his stories whenever he came home from work. His superior officer in fact, a Lieutenant, was the inspiration for my long-time imaginary friend, Lou. In this initial encounter with Mr. Clarence though, I sensed things were different. Which is to say, my Dad's bond with Mr. Clarence more closely resembled my relationship to Lou than his relationship to the Lieutenant. As my list of observations grew and various conclusions began to take shape, two undeniable facts stood out to me as strange. First: My dad had a friend. And the second: That friend was black.

I didn't think of my dad as anti-social per se, just socially content; he was a family man, the kind of guy who didn't go out of his way to invite people into his sphere of influence. When he wasn't at work, he was at home working on something around the house, and I always thought that his hobby was shuttling us kids around to participate in our different hobbies.

Mr. Clarence's social capacity, by contrast, resembled the ever-expanding limits of our universe. He was a natural networker, cool, smooth even; he had an acute sense of business and an impressive list of side-hustles. He drove a suburban and the back was always filled with boxes of trinkets, t-shirts, or other items in which he was currently dabbling. On more than one occasion, he arrived at our house after midnight on New Year's Eve with a stunning arsenal of fireworks crammed into the back of his suburban. It was so common for Mr. Clarence to spontaneously appear with a trunk full of boxes that I never questioned how he came into their possession; I just stood back and marveled at the surreal display of pyrotechnic brilliance, the effects of which were so bright that the street lights actually turned off in mechanical submission to the superior glory of the fireworks. In general, though, he didn't need a reason to visit. It may be more accurate to say that he needed a reason to not visit; as though stopping by to visit a friend when in the "area" was more of a constitutional duty than a courtesy. With time we grew to assume that whenever he dropped by unannounced, he must have been in the area.

That Mr. Clarence's race surprised me was only because we didn't know many people who didn't look just like us. Otherwise, I've never had any reason to suspect that my father was racist. Over the years though, my appreciation for their friendship has only deepened as I've developed a fuller understanding of the historical context that shaped both men. My parents met in high school, in Georgia, not many years after high schools in the south were integrated. They were minorities in their school and while my mom relished her experience as the sole Caucasian in her choir, my dad eyed those of African descent with suspicion. He carried a knife in his pocket at school and asked my mom to carry one too, just in case you need to defend yourself, he reasoned. My mom refused and even laughed the matter off, but my dad perceived the overwhelming presence of African Americans at his school as a serious threat.

I've never asked Mr. Clarence about race, but I know that he grew up in similar circumstances in small town Texas, where, despite state and federal legislative efforts, early 19th century attitudes towards race were not uncommon even into the third quarter of the 20th century.

An even greater obstacle to their friendship though, should have been their occupation. As officers of the law, they could have easily manipulated their daily experiential evidence to defend popular racial stereotypes. Instead, whenever my dad explained why he'd spent the night in the hospital or why his arm was in a sling, or any other visible evidence of the danger he'd encountered on the job, he did so through slapstick anecdotes devoid of subjective acrimony. When he was hit by a car while directing traffic, he threw his hands wildly about as he explained how he tried to get the woman's attention in the seconds before she ran into him. When he told me about an arrest he made that resulted in a trip to the hospital for a bite wound, it unfolded with Bugs Bunnyish sophistication and pizzaz. "He was bigger than me, son, and he didn't want to get arrested; he said he wouldn't go down without a fight. So, I asked him to have the courtesy to take his cowboy boots off first, and when he did ... I slapped the cuffs on him." I remember the details of those stories with crystalline fidelity, every twist and turn just as he told me so many years ago. The one detail that I never knew about the perpetrators though, because he never told me, was the color of their skin.

Despite the overwhelming odds to the contrary, my dad and Mr. Clarence established a genuine friendship that extended far beyond their shifts on the job. I remember Mr. Clarence grilling burgers for us in the back yard of his North Houston home and I remember his family visiting us in the suburbs after church. I remember attending birthday parties for his children and I remember his daughter showcasing her vocal talents in our living room by singing the National Anthem, and I watched in nostalgic awe last summer as she took the field before an Astros baseball game and sang the very same song.

I like to imagine that their friendship began with a laugh, a singular event that launched them over the mountains of presumption and prejudice into seamless fraternity. To do so, though, would fail to recognize the steps they took, conscious or not, to summit those peaks of indifference.

Without knowing anything about my dad, his physical appearance alone could have justifiably triggered feelings of such destructive grief that Mr. Clarence could have refused to work with him, or at the very least, he could have erected an emotional barrier that would have limited their relationship to the most basic of workplace necessities. Instead, he looked beyond the alleged communicative properties of race and forgave the historic and present grievances of whites against blacks, giving my dad a completely fair chance at a first impression.

For my father to extend the same opportunity to Mr. Clarence, he had to recognize his predisposition to race-based judgement. In other words, he had to register an internal plea of guilt and guilty pleas are no easier for cops than they are for criminals.

Whenever I analyze the decisions that enabled each man to conquer his cultural and occupational biases towards race, inevitably I discover some common virtue that has been valued across cultures and throughout history. Common denominators such as forgiveness and humility were the framework for their friendship, and their terms of equality. And in this swirling, tumultuous climate of police brutality, amidst hopeful cries for procedural reform, I am increasingly convinced that the very same qualities made them good at their jobs.

My conviction is that Mr. Clarence and my dad were good friends because they were good men, and they were good cops because they were virtuous cops. They could trust one another because they were trustworthy, they could protect because they could serve, and they could convict others of doing wrong because they could humbly admit to wrongdoing.

In the beginning, I was surprised that my dad had a friend, a friend who was black. In hindsight, I should have been surprised that my dad had a friend, a friend who was good. As such, their friendship has defied entropy, and resisted the arresting trends of cultural bigotry.

Mr. Clarence showed up at my parent's house unexpectedly not long ago. Years had passed since I'd seen him last, but I happened to be visiting that night with my wife. When he entered, he greeted me with arms opened as wide as his smile. I settled into the couch and watched as my dad and Mr. Clarence conversed with the same simple fluidity and jocular cadence that I'd witnessed nearly three decades earlier. My mom came in shortly after he arrived and, as surprised as the rest of us, asked, "Clarence, what brings you by this evening?" He paused and gasped, a thin cloud of incredulity descending upon his brow while looking at my mom as though she needed a refresher on constitutional obligations. "Well ... I was in the area," he said. And we all nodded, understandingly.

Article © Jeremy Merillat. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-12-21
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Harvey Silverman
01:09:24 PM
A beautiful piece.
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