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To make the other less complete: One more conversation toward a greater understanding

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“Tout autre est tout autre.”

— Jacques Derrida

Every other is completely other. That’s the French phrase in English translation that I unearthed from a college notebook tucked away in a dusty box in my apartment. Every other is completely other.

I’ve long ago forgotten its meaning and significance, if I ever grasped it, but I found myself reflecting on it this weekend.

The phrase reverberated in my mind. As I recall, it’s part of a long line of attempts to understand the relationship between the “self” and the “other”: where our understanding of ourselves ends and another person begins.

There’s a frustration in the phrase, a desire to reach across the divide to understand the other, as we each form each other, but an inability to bridge the gap.

On Friday afternoon, I sat down with Jim Taylor and William “Buster” Crabbe at the Thomas Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church with a simple question on my mind: “what is it like to be black in Watertown?” An experience about as foreign to mine as one could get.

For more than an hour, under the gaze of a dark-skinned Jesus on the blood-red carpets of the church, they talked and I listened.

Buster, or “Crab” as he’s sometimes called, arrived at Camp Drum as a soldier in 1962 after a tour of duty in Korea by way of Fort Leonard Wood, MIssouri.

“Write letters to the boys in Korea, pray for the boys in Leonard Wood,” he told me they said at the time.

Originally from Harrisburg, Pa., he was steered toward the Army by a sparring partner of Sugar Ray Robinson. The Army would keep him out of trouble, he was told.

After plying his father with drinks to soften him up enough to sign the permission forms, “I joined the Army, not thinking clearly,” he said, turning 16 in Korea.

Jim came to Watertown a few years later from Georgia.

There were only about 10 black families here at the time, they said.

Back then, the AME Zion church was located under the Church Street Bridge, where several families held services in their homes. Eventually, the church was moved to the north side of the city as part of a land swap. The black community followed.

The church was built by Frank Thomas, a member and trustee of the church, in his off hours. Buster pointed out a window that wasn’t quite straight due to the volunteer labor.

Buster said that while there was plenty of Italian, Greek and Chinese food in the area, soul food was hard to come by.

For that, or for a black magazine, a trip to Syracuse was necessary.

Jim, now 82, came to Watertown around 1965 and worked for New York Air Brake before being laid off. He found work as a runner for Seaway National Bank and stayed there for nearly 30 years, carrying large sums of money into and out of Watertown businesses unbeknownst to passersby.

In those years, expressions of racism in the north country were not overt.

“It was there but you didn’t see it, you could feel it sometimes,” Buster said, “But I never encountered anything I couldn’t take care of.”

The two men have raised their families in Watertown and are now part of an older generation that still remembers what it was like to live here during the Civil Rights movement.

But before those worldly responsibilities weighed in on them, they had some fun, too.

“My apartment, my bachelor’s apartment, was a social stop. In the middle of the night, I used to sell booze out the back window,” Buster said, his animated face indicative of some earlier orneriness.

When Buster moved into his current house, he said his neighbor circulated a petition to keep a black family out of the neighborhood.

Despite this, the two eventually became good friends and Buster and Jim maintain that racism was never a big part of life here.

“I never encountered any prejudices as such that I was aware of,” Jim said.

But, “some people have a way of putting you at the end of the line without you even knowing it,” Buster added.

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