In the mid-1950s when I was seven or eight, we lived on a dead end street that stopped at a creek bed. The garbage trucks would head down the street, nose-in, and then turn around in the driveway of the last house before heading back out.
The crews were made up of a white supervisor who drove and two black men who handled the garbage. In the hot Florida summers, they often waited after turning around, and took a short break in the shade. The driver would remain in the cab with its fan while the others would stay outside.
One day, my mother suggested that I take a bottle of cold water and a couple of cups down and see if they were thirsty. They were and appreciated the water. This trip became a weekly ritual. After a few times, the black men and I learned each other’s names and we began conversations about their families and homes. The ritual deference they had first showed me dropped away, and I learned that they were no different than I except that their children still had two parents at home.
Later, I had to learn the hard lesson that empathy is limited by experience, and that I could never, with any depth, understand the evils that a whole community endured. Eventually their schedule changed; no more instruction at the dead end.