The recent conversion of the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue into the Trump International Hotel and the publication of an in-depth article in the New York Times on Fred and Donald Trump’s practice of turning away potential black tenants who applied for units in their properties (‘No Vacancies’ for Blacks, August 28) triggered a memory of my one direct experience with discrimination based on race.
I was not the victim, but played a supporting role in thwarting what I believe to this day was a ham-handed attempt to discourage a friend and colleague of mine from renting an apartment in downtown Washington, D.C.
The year was 1981, and I and two of my colleagues at the New York Postal Data Center (a data processing center for the US Postal Service then located in midtown Manhattan) had been invited by my former boss in New York to join him at USPS headquarters in Washington on a large human resources-related project.
I was the human resources person from my office, still new to the job, my first in New York. My partners in crime from New York who also joined the D.C. project were Angelo Branco and Lindsay Cherry. Angelo’s role was to oversee the project budget; Lindsay’s to help plan the telecommunications needed for the project to succeed.
I don’t think that three friends could be more different. I was deep into exploring the arts, spending what little free time I had at the theater, writing, and taking photographs of the urban landscape. Angelo seemed perpetually distracted on the surface but didn’t miss a single detail and possessed a savage sense of humor. Lindsay was the elder statesman, the perpetual optimist and, thanks to the lead role he played in many a postal project, seemed to know practically everyone at USPS HQ.
Initially we’d been put up in a large apartment complex in Northern Virginia with the rest of the project team. But well before our initial leases expired it became apparent to Angelo, Lindsay, and me that the frat party atmosphere of the complex that many of our colleagues on the project team embraced with gusto was not for us.
So off we went to spend our housing allowances elsewhere. Our choices reflected our diverse personalities and interests; I soon found a sublet in a tiny studio near Kennedy Center, Angelo a townhouse in Virginia that could accommodate his family.
Lindsay, however, was having trouble finding a place, but not for lack of trying over the course of several weeks. At lunch one day he shared that he had found exactly what he was looking for, a low-rise building (not a Trump property, as I recall) in a good neighborhood within walking distance of our offices at L’Enfant Plaza.
The problem was that, on each of several visits to the rental office, he was either told by the agent on duty that there were no units available, or shown neglected units in less than pristine condition. Despite the obvious implication, Lindsay never expressed what seemed obvious to Angelo and me — that he was deliberately being discouraged because of his race. As I recall he simply said that he felt something “didn’t seem right” and asked Angelo and me to accompany him to the rental office one last time.
We all agreed that the next day seemed to be as good a day as any, and so at noon, dressed in our most somber business attire, we stepped out into the bright spring sunshine and the already-building D.C. humidity, hailed a cab, and set off to the rental office.
Some minor details of our encounter may have faded with time, but I vividly recall Lindsay entering the rental office, flanked by two silent, expressionless, burly young men in dark suits and aviator sunglasses. Lindsay approached the desk, smiled his warmest smile, and greeted the rental agent with “I’d like to introduce Mr. Branco and Mr. Point, my associates from New York.”
Taking Lindsay’s cue, Angelo’s face assumed an unreadable expression as he stared silently at the agent. “We understand that Mr. Cherry is having difficulty finding a suitable apartment in your building,” I intoned.
No one said another word or moved for what seemed like a very long while. Finally, the agent swiveled his chair toward the card file on his desk and began flipping through it. “We seem to have had a couple of vacancies recently,” I recall him saying as he pulled out two 3” x 5” index cards, plucked two numbered keys from a rack on the wall, and invited us to inspect the apartments.
To no one’s surprise, Lindsay told us that each of the units was in a far better state than any he had been directed to before. He made his choice, and we left him to complete the paperwork for what would be his home away from home until our project came to an end, adding yet one more war story to a growing collection that the three of us rehashed over many lunches and happy hours.
I eventually left the USPS and made the leap to a position in private industry back in New York. Time and distance soon caused the three of us to lose contact in that pre-Facebook age, but recently, doing what I suppose lots of folks of a certain age do, I Googled Lindsay.
My search led me to an interview conducted in 1999 as part of the Black History Oral Histories project at Virginia Tech. Lindsay spoke at length about his life. Among other things, I learned that he began working to help support his family at the age of eight.
I also learned that he had been one of the first three black students admitted to the Virginia Tech Cadet Corps, although they were not permitted to live on campus. One of the images on the site shows a young Cadet Cherry walking to campus in the snow.
“You can sit down and make yourself miserable if you want to, or you can go on and enjoy life,” Lindsay is quoted as saying during the interview. Judging by our time together in Washington, he seemed to have done just that. I hope he still is.
George Point lives in Lawrenceville. He is a frequent contributor to U.S. 1’s Summer Fiction issue.