It was my sophomore year in college that I transferred from a state school in New York to the University of Alabama. I had two goals: getting into the business program (which I couldn't do in New York until I was a junior) and moving closer to my then boyfriend (now husband) who lived in Florida. Being only 19 and having grown up in the North, I had no idea the culture shock that awaited me in the Deep South.
I was so naive and nerdy, I didn't realize I was now attending an infamous party school. Complete with a nationally ranked football team whose members were treated like royalty. They didn't have to adhere to the academic standards like the rest of the students because the rules didn't apply to them. In Tuscaloosa, you weren't anyone if you didn't live in one of the opulent plantation style sorority or fraternity houses. Especially, if you lived on 'Fro row, which was slang for the street next to Frat Row where the meager, black fraternities and sororities resided. It was 1989. Segregation had ended 25 years earlier. Formally, anyhow.
I lived in the dorm and made friends with the other misfits from foreign shores, like Florida, who, like me, pledged to stay GDI (Goddam Independent). The campus looked like a J. Crew catalog with students clad in a rainbow of polo shirts, pearls and hair ribbons. While I looked like a member of the band Def Leppard in my black t-shirts paired with ripped jeans and my mullet (that I'd finally decided to grow out.) The parking lots were chock full of BMWs. With the exception of the faculty lot because professors couldn't afford luxury cars on their salary. And me? I didn't have a car at all. I bummed rides to the Piggly Wiggly in town to stock up on college staples like ramen and peanut butter and jelly.
It took me a while to acclimatize. First of all, it's hot as hell in Alabama in August. Then, in the South, gravy isn't brown, it's white. Coke is a generic term for any soda the way Kleenex is for tissue. And the expression "Bless your heart" is actually an insult meaning you're a complete idiot.
I got in a groove of getting up early for my 8 am classes. Which was a stroke of pure genius, as there's no line for dorm showers at 7am and shitloads of hot water. I also found the best time to study was during football games when the dorms were completely empty and quiet. And after going to exactly one fraternity party, I knew I needed an excuse to never go to another one. Since I also needed money, getting a job was the obvious answer, but getting to the job was the real issue.
Just a mile or so off campus was an Arby's. I could walk there and work on Friday and Saturday nights until closing, thus missing all the boring, meat market frat parties and earn some money to go to see my boyfriend in Florida over spring break. It was the perfect plan.
My first day on the job, I got an icy reception from my co-workers. I soon came to realize I was the only white person working at the store. So, I simply put my head down and got to work. I started in the kitchen slicing roast beef and assembling sandwiches. Cleaned the bathrooms, learned to disassemble and sanitize the shake machine and swept and mopped the greasy disgusting floors. You know, the real glory jobs. After a couple of months, I'd worked my way up the ranks to work in the drive-thru. Which is a real position of status in the fast food industry, in case you didn't know. The manager assigned Tamika, who I was pretty sure hated my guts because she did everything possible to avoid me, with training me.
It was fine at first. Until about 11pm, when the college students started driving up in their Mercedes daddy bought for them. Coming from their frat houses headed out to one of the many clubs surrounding campus that served alcohol to students without carding them. They were already drunk and completely disrespectful. The way people are when they think they're better than you. The luxury cars and the insecure assholes who drove them were all different, but every night was exactly the same. We were harassed.
Now, I don't know what it's like to be African American growing up in the South or anywhere else for that matter. Just like Tamika didn't know what it was like to be white growing up in the North. There are so many experiences that shape how we see and react to the world. But, working together, our Venn diagrams overlapped and gave us a small sliver of a shared experience. And that's how we bonded, over our mutual hatred of white, privileged kids who came through that drive-thru late at night.
The last night I worked there before I moved back to New York, she bought me dinner: a Giant roast beef sandwich, fries, with a jamocha shake and a cherry pie. "Your skinny white ass can't possibly eat all that", she said. "Oh yeah? Watch me!" I said, with no guilt whatsoever.