Whatever you think of her, Oprah Winfrey is some woman for one woman. It is hard not to be impressed by her rise to fame and her ability to influence people. For most people, meeting Oprah for the first time must be somewhat overwhelming. In my case I frightened her at first and then she scared the hell out of me.
I’ve literally never been star-struck. It is partly an Irish begrudgery thing where you don’t want someone to think you’re impressed because they have something you don’t i.e. fame. The other part is a solid grounding as a child that led me to believe no one is any better than I am, so I can always feel confident and hold my own in any circumstances. That’s just the way I fly… You like that BS?
Before I explain how our meeting went, I have to put something on the table to put this in context for you. Growing up in Ireland when I was a child, meant that generally speaking the only colour face you saw was white, freckled or pink if the sun shone. Today political correctness doesn’t allow people to open their mouths and simply apply a colour to a person, without considering if there is a more appropriate term one should use. An American once told me, that she hadn’t seen many African Americans when she visited Ireland. Of course she hadn’t! The term she used does not apply to Irish people of colour. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word black for fear of offence.
When I was a child, black was nothing more than an adjective. In the first place, back then there were hardly any people with different colour skin in Ireland and while there were a few of course, it was such a rare thing to see a coloured face, that had I encountered one, I most certainly would have stared. That sounds quite shocking to some I’m sure, but as a kid in a land of pale-skinned Irish, the novelty would have been too much. In the Irish language for example, a man with dark skin from Africa would be called ‘Fear Gorm’ (Pronounced Far gorrum) or blue man. Irish is a language heavily dependent on description and a gentleman emanating from equatorial Africa, may indeed have appeared more blue than black when the first Irish linguist decided to apply that term. I’m not sure if they still use that version in schools today, but they certainly did when I was a child. Children speak of what they see, much as my naïve young self might well have back then. I only saw people who weren’t white on TV and to me they were black, purely and simply from the lack of another descriptive option.
Now there is a story I was told in a pub one day, about an American CIA operative who wanted to blend into Irish society so he could assume an Irish identity and work as an international spy. For five years he set himself up in an Irish speaking community (Gaeltacht) and at the end of this time, he not only spoke English with a thick Galway accent, he was a fluent Irish speaker with every nuance of the language perfected. He wore the right clothes and walked like a thick country farmer.
One day he went into a pub in Spiddal and ordered a pint. As the Barman poured he enquired,
“What part of America would you be from?”
Astounded, the CIA man shook his head and told the barman about all his efforts and the years of work he had put into appearing Irish. When he finished explaining all that he had done, he asked the barman what had given him away as American. The barman answered,
“Sure aren’t you as black as the ace of spades.”
Now this little joke has two points. One it pokes fun at Americans (sorry America) and two it demonstrates the wholly mono-cultural society that existed in Ireland at the time of its telling. In Texas, a person can walk like a Texan, talk like a Texan and say he’s a Texan and… he’s a Texan regardless of race. To some degree this applies in modern Ireland. But when I was a child, this mono-cultural world was the one in which I lived. The result was that when I first began my travels, I had a dirty big, unworldly Irish head on me.
When I landed in Chicago for the first time as a young man, I was quite literally shocked to see so many people who didn’t have pale white skin, freckles or sunburn. It was a monstrous culture shock. One day not long after I had arrived, my brother who lived in Chicago, agreed to meet me after he finished work and I foolishly chose to take the bus to meet him. I had no idea where I was going and I quickly became lost. I took another bus and ended up outside a museum having run out of bus fare. I was in trouble. Back then we had no mobile phones, so I had to get my skinny, white Irish ass back to his apartment or to his place of work, all by my lonesome.
I decided to do something unthinkable and throw myself upon the mercy of strangers. This it turned out, was not the best idea I have ever had, as I appeared to be some brightly coloured, pan-handler, in a red yellow and green t-shirt, with long blonde wavy hair, a pair of cut-off denim shorts (it was a long time ago) and to add to my dilemma, I was the only white face in a sea of coloured faces in a very non-white neighbourhood.
I went up to a woman with two children and politely said, “Excuse me…” and was about to ask if she could possibly lend me one dollar so I might catch the bus. I fully intended to explain in my naievity, that I was on holiday from Ireland followed by a full explanation of my predicament. Bear in mind, I come from a place where Irish people happily speak to strangers all the time, so I assumed the same of Americans. Furthermore, never having experienced racial tension, my out-of-placeness in that moment never crossed my mind. For some reason she thought my intentions were far more sinister.
Jesus I only got two words out and she went apoplectic. She started screaming and yelling, I thought she might start beating me there and then in the middle of the street, so I made a hasty retreat, my problem unsolved, the crazy woman still shouting abuse after me as I walked away. I hadn’t even heard some of the swear words that she was using to berate me before that day.
Then it happened. I turned around and there she was, large as life, Oprah Winfrey. I had only just seen her for the first time a few days earlier, my brother’s wife being addicted to her show and it was her I knew it. I have no idea why, but I immediately walked up to her as though I knew her and she listened calmly as I began explaining my story. I was still traumatised by the previous lady and I spoke at one hundred miles an hour. Half way through my explanation, she opened her purse, took out five dollars and handed it to me. I’ll never forget the words she said to me.
“Get the F*** out of my face you pan-handin’ mother F****r, you’re lucky you haven’t had your skinny white ass killed already, comin’ up here like a stripy-assed funky zebra with your corn hair and your nasty-ass shorts… now go on get the hell out of here.”
Ah Oprah… fond memories, or at least they nearly were. That evening as I explained my tale to my brother, Oprah came on the telly. “There she is, there she is!” I said excitedly like I was her new best friend, only it wasn’t her. It was someone else. But that wasn’t possible? The penny dropped, I was of course watching Oprah on the TV, which meant the person I had tapped up for five bucks was someone else entirely. Now all the ‘mother-f****r’ talk made sense. In fairness there really was a very strong likeness but my naïve young self, fresh and green, didn’t understand that it was highly unlikely that I would have met someone like Oprah on a Chicago side-walk. I had been so traumatised by the first lady who verbally assaulted me; it was only thinking back that I remembered she had been pushing a shopping trolley full of cans.
I needed to get out more; I needed to meet other people that weren’t from one culture. That’s long been rectified and I never met Oprah again. Of course it wasn’t her, but much like a realistic dream, I can’t help shake the memory as though it was really Ms. Winfrey herself that I met in my hour of need. With that in mind, I am grateful for the five bucks she gave me that day and if I ever do meet her in real life, I promise to pay her back. Oprah I owe you one…
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