A few weeks ago, en route from Princeton to northeastern Pennsylvania, I became tangentially involved in a confrontation that was at once unsettling yet also encouraging and ultimately heartening. On a very hot weekday afternoon somewhere north of Clinton in rural Warren County, I pulled into a gas station on Route 31. I took a place in one line of pumps, one line over from where a pickup truck was parked with a gas station attendant at the pump. Nothing unusual. But then I heard the shrill and angry sound of a woman’s voice. It was the driver of the pickup, a middle-aged woman dressed in a sleeveless white blouse, hair pulled back in a pony tail. She was shouting at the attendant. “You don’t ever assume that I want $20 worth of gas! I tell you how much I want!”
The attendant, who appeared to be an Asian man of some sort, possibly Pakistani, mumbled a few words in response.
The woman yelled back. “Hey, you better learn to speak English! You’re in America now!”
To my ear the man had spoken to her in English. He responded again, more loudly and clearly in English, but with a distinct foreign accent. She repeated her charge. “Speak English! “This is America!”
I considered hollering out an objection, but decided against it. Taking on the woman in the truck in a verbal debate was one matter, but who knew if she had a passenger in that pickup, perhaps in the convenience store a few feet away. I imagined a burly guy buying a pack of cigarets. A few harsh words later, the attendant took up his own defense:
“I speak English good enough,” he said, his voice trembling with anger. “And you can go f – – k yourself.”
I smiled to myself. He certainly had command of his colloquialisms. His comeback line triggered more hate speech from the driver of the pickup. At that point another pickup rolled in, driven by another middle-aged woman, dressed in a similar sleeveless white blouse, hair in the pony tail. The second woman observed the shouting match going on and marched over to the window of the first pickup. Two against one, I thought. A few words were exchanged, and then silence from the first woman.
The second woman walked back to her pickup and announced to the handful of us witnessing the confrontation: “Don’t anyone pay any attention to anything that woman says. She’s an ignorant racist.”
Encouraging, but still unsettling. What’s it like for that gas station attendant to be berated for his foreign accent? What’s it like when no one comes to his defense? Does he deserve a chance to do his job free from the noisy political debates going on about immigration and the idea of America first?
A variation on this subject came up in a conversation a few days later in northeastern Pennsylvania. A couple at a picnic observed that their daughter’s college had established “crying rooms,” where anxious students could take refuge from troubling circumstances or just decompress in advance of a final exam. At Princeton University, I told this couple, therapy puppies now routinely visit the campus during examination periods and — it appears — some of the students look forward to their visit and appreciate the interaction.
The couple were skeptical of the current generation’s mettle. “Why can’t kids today just suck it up, like we did?” asked the mother.
Why not, I thought later. As students in the 1960s, my generation certainly had to suck it up on occasion. And surely there were no crying rooms and no therapy puppies at Old Nassau back then. Our generation produced square-jawed, resolute guys like Bob Mueller, Class of 1966, now the special prosecutor. And no-tears, no-nonsense federal judges like Thomas S. (T.S.) Ellis, an engineering graduate of Princeton in 1961 who served as a naval aviator before entering Harvard Law School. Ellis is the Reagan-appointed judge who has scolded the Manafort prosecutors on several occasions, calling out one of the government lawyers for literally having — oh no! — tears in his eyes. The only more damning comment would have been to offer the beleaguered litigant a puppy to pet.
Princeton was noticeably a less “suck-it-up” kind of place after women were admitted in the fall of 1969. Bicker, the suck-it-up and take-it-like-a-man selection process to determine a student’s social status in his upperclass years, lost its dominant position several years later. Even in this kinder and gentler era, the university does not seem to have suffered. Three of the justices on the United States Supreme Court are Princeton alumni, and the university has its share of successful CEOs and entrepreneurs, including the founder of Amazon and the former CEO of Google and its parent company, Alphabet.
Princeton administrators, who may have some brilliance of their own, may have figured out that the ability to “suck it up” is not the only marker of future success.
A few days after the trip to Pennsylvania, I found myself touring Trenton with architectural historian Clifford Zink. I am working on a story about the prospects for the capital city, and Zink suggested that a tour of the town’s once thriving industrial base might show some of the opportunities, as well as the challenges. After driving around town for several hours, we decided it was time to quit, and to sample a Trenton restaurant before leaving the city. It was a Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and — a sign of the troubled times in Trenton — most every place was closed. Finally we discovered the 1911 Smokehouse on West Front Street.
The Smokehouse was not only open, it was alive with neighborhood people as well as a few out-of-towners. Every seat at the bar was taken. The tables were full, as well. But one gentleman, waiting for the rest of his party to join him at a table, invited us to sit down. We did, struck up a conversation, and ended up having dinner with our new friend and his buddy, also a regular patron at the Smokehouse.
It was convivial. But then a sudden change in the mood: One of our new friends was checking his cellphone and a frown came over his face. He showed the phone to his buddy. The conversation with us stopped and their attention shifted to a young man sitting at the bar, talking earnestly to an older man.
Zink and I eventually figured it out: The young man at the bar — just hours before — had been confronted by police while sitting in a parked car on the street, showing a friend who had just purchased the car how to use all the signals and electronics on the vehicle. The stop could have turned into an altercation between the young black man and the police. But it didn’t.
Zink and I never found out how the details of the stop, and there may have been some reason for it. But this young man clearly was no hoodlum. He had just graduated from college and was about to start a job with a major pharmaceutical company. The older man with him was his father. The community of patrons at the 1911 Smokehouse congratulated him for not losing his cool or allowing the interaction with the police to escalate. One of the people at our table offered to help contact a lawyer if one was needed. I congratulated the man’s father for raising such an upstanding son.
The supportive group at the Smokehouse, I realized, was doing what the second woman at the gas station had done, and what the college administrators with their crying rooms and therapy puppies have done. They were giving a person some support, just in case gutting it out wasn’t working. It was heartening. With people like this, I thought to myself, maybe we really can make America great again.