Despite the interruption of life as we know and live it (thanks, or no thanks to the COVID-19 Pandemic) the world has managed to move forward with the Olympic games. And albeit a year late, it’s still very welcome!
Today’s “For A Day” tale takes us back to the last time the United States hosted the international games. 25 years ago. And even though it was short-lived, I’ll never forget when…
I Was An Olympian (For A Day)
Having recently been promoted to Safety Coordinator at corporate headquarters, I saw it as a great opportunity to take advantage of professional training. We had just had a 3-day comprehensive inspection by OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), whose compliance officer reported that I had the desire and tools, but needed the education to help achieve my potential (I had only been in the position for a month, with no prior experience or training). Of course, while researching courses, I made it a point to pick the ones in the best locations. As a result, Safety Management Institute Parts I, II and III placed me in Boston, Atlanta and San Antonio, respectively.
Fortunately for me, SMII, located in Atlanta, Georgia, took place just before the Games of the XXVI Olympiad, more commonly known as Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics. The seminar lasted for a week, but sadly not into or during the games. It did, however, place us in one of the United States’ most progressive cities while many of the world’s greatest athletes were arriving.
Being a typical seminar, we were in classes all day from 8a – 4p with a 45-60 minute break. With the city beginning to fill with competitors, volunteers and general spectators, getting to and from lunch outside of the training facility became increasingly difficult. When asked by the trainers if we should order in, we unanimously voted against it, opting to spend the extra time at the end of the day, if necessary. That didn’t mean we would stay over. It mean that any chance of getting out early was gone by the wayside. Which brings me to my story.
Understand that although I was (hey, I still AM) a professional, I often preferred to travel and dress in the then-popular tracksuits, similar to what training athletes wore (it was also the trend in the mid 90s among us lazy folk). I was also 29 years old at the time and sporting a fairly bulky build from my years slinging steel on the production line. By this point, I had gained some fat from the desk time and many business lunches and dinners, but I could still pass as an athlete under the loose fitting outfit. Not like I would look these days.
This seminar, like most I had attended, put me in the severe minority. By that, I mean the industry is traditionally dominated by white males in their late 30s through early 50s. As a result, whenever I dined out while traveling, my company was always the same: three older white males and me, a young black man. And since my clothing of choice was always something stylish, I really stood out amidst my khaki and polo-wearing colleagues.
So that was the look at our table at the restaurant. I honestly didn’t think twice about it as the young server approached us. I smiled along with my lunch partners as she introduced herself and took our drink orders. By the time she returned, I noticed that she had already motioned in my direction while talking to a co-worker at the kitchen entrance. At the time, I thought she might have been looking at someone beyond me because I didn’t fall in the category of “that fine ass man at Table 8”. Would have been nice though.
When she returned to take our order, she stopped before taking mine and asked, “What’choo in?”
I cocked my head to ask what she meant, but she had already asked her question again with greater clarity.
“What sport’choo in?” she asked again in a strong, southern accent.
That’s when I was reminded that I was truly the odd one of the bunch, especially to her. It was also apparent that she thought that I was an Olympic competitor.
“OH!” I replied in a very poor attempt at an accent from some country in Africa. “I am een tha undahwahtuh boskutweeveeng (underwater basketweaving).”
“The WHAT???” she replied in total confusion.
“Undahwahtu BOSkutweeveeng,” I said louder as my partners fought hard to contain their laughs. I was amazed that they even hid their smirks. But then again, she wasn’t paying them any attention. “Eet is vedy poapulah een my kuntree.”
Two of my new friends turned their heads, fighting harder not to expose the façade as I placed my order.
When she left to put our order in, one of the gentlemen shook his head, smiling and asked, “Do you do this everywhere you go?”
“Dude, no! Not pretending to be an athlete.” I quickly answered. “But where ELSE am I going to get an opportunity like THIS? I’ve played around with servers before, but this one is all new.”
Nothing more was said of the matter as we dined. It had been all but forgotten until she came back to check on us. But this time, bringing the young lady along that she had spoken to earlier.
“You any good at that basketweaving?” her co-worker asked.
“He’s the best!” one of my partners proudly exclaimed, deciding to join in the fun as the other two looked at him with a scolding glare.
In-between bites, I glanced upward and said, “Yoo must hold your bdeth a vedy, vedy long time. Or yoo will not last. Eef yoo ah not cahfull, yoo can run out or air and drown. My cousin drowned years ago, luhneeng how to do eet.”
I gotta focus on one country and perfect my accent next time. Every country in that continent has a plethora of languages and dialects, so to simply say you’re using an “African accent” is totally inaccurate.
They smiled and walked away after refilling our drinks.
After a few more exchanges, finishing our meals and receiving our checks, we thanked them and said goodbye as we left our generous gratuities on the table. It’s the least we could do after our antics. Well, MY antics.
Without warning, my server put her arms around me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. Then wished me good luck, promising to look for me on TV. I thanked her and told her I would be fighting for her, as well as my country (which I never named). I did, at least, tell her my name was Keh-NEE.
As we left the restaurant, my co-performer grabbed my lower arm.
“Ken,” he said, ignoring that my nametag read Kenny, “We can’t leave that poor, sweet girl like that. She might go back to somebody and make a fool out of herself.”
“So go tell her,” I replied sharply, challenging him.
“Do you really think I should be the one?”
I sighed as I walked back to through the restaurant. When I approached her, she looked up and smiled, waiting for my next words. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been successful, had I asked her out (in another world). She was rather attractive, but about ten years my youth.
“Look, baby, I can’t do that to you. I was just messing with you. I’m not an athlete.” I admitted, ditching that horrid accent.
“You’re not?” she replied disappointingly before pausing. “Those three white men weren’t your trainers?”
“Nooooo,” I laughed. Then it was I who paused, still trying to figure out how she could so readily accept my initial claim of being from overseas. “They… They’re not my coach and trainers. I’m American and I’m actually on parole. That was my probation officer and two of his staffing agents. We were having a performance evaluation meeting.”
“Ohhhhhh,” she quickly answered. “Well, you better stay out of trouble then…”
This time, I was the one who walked away perplexed, not knowing which was worse:
- That she thought I was an athlete, or-
- She so readily accepted that I was a common (ex) criminal.
In any event, at least I Was An Olympian…
…for a day.
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