I may finally be coming to terms with having become a "public figure" ... .
The role is an awkward fit, and sometimes an inconvenience -- particularly when I find myself in the checkout line at the Safeway supermarket on the way home from work and in uniform. The admiring glances stolen by young girls stiffens my spine a bit, and quickens my step through the aisles, but I'm not confused by the differences between respect for the flat hat and for the elderly woman under it. The National Park Service has earned its honors as "America's best idea," (a la Ken Burns). It's when the local PBS Channel has aired the documentary, "This is Us," for the umpteenth time the night before, and men and woman from my generation feel their spines stiffen in reflected glory of one of their own still being in the game ... and getting away with it after all these years ... then a different sort of effect pops up; equally complimentary. But at the end of the day, "celebrity" wears thin, and hunger pangs begin to take their toll on the old psyche as I try to decide what shape my pasta will take this day, and which spaghetti sauce -- and a new-found weariness creeps into my smile and it comes less easily as I begin to feel watched ... .
You can imagine the feeling last Wednesday as I stood before an interracial audience hosted by the African American Leadership Network of Safeway Stores at their corporate headquarters in Pleasanton. I'd been invited to be the speaker for their observance of Dr. King's birthday. As I was escorted to the Green Room in their grand auditorium, I learned that the day's presentation was being televised for the entire Safeway television (nationwide?) network, so that those who could not attend would have access to the hour-long program "On Demand" from the archives wherever they are and whenever they wished. Wow! What one earth did I have to say that should warrant such coverage? Surely it's time to pay closer attention to preparing my remarks, and to stop depending upon the power of memory. Did I not owe my hosts more than that? But since my improvised talks have always been enough, could I not be risking whatever success I'm experiencing by simply sharing my truths as I recall them -- and not becoming so self-conscious that something of value gets lost?
The experience was unsettling enough that -- as I was grandly escorted to the car laden with a huge bouquet of about two dozen long-stemmed yellow-red-tipped-petaled roses and two tickets to the new Tuskegee Airmen film, "Red Tails," I somehow failed to notice that their portable mike attached to my belt with the wire clipped to my lapel, was hidden under the armful of roses. This was not discovered until I was back at my desk 40 miles away in Richmond and a colleague called attention to my strange "jewelry." (It was returned in the morning.)
In February I will be guest speaker at IT&T Corporate Headquarters in San Ramon. Maybe by then I'll have come to terms with this public person I've gradually become ... but I don't believe we have time enough for that to happen. Maybe this is a case of "if it ain't broke don't fix it." Maybe it's a mistake to try to become who they think I am. That might be very difficult to accomplish at this late date. I'd need another lifetime to figure out just who that is.