While working on this book, I came to understand why Ron was so guarded, especially around white people. When I was young, he had never talked about the rules that governed his life growing up in the Jim Crow South. Later, he told me that he had been taught to never look a white person in the eye. And if a white person walked toward him on the street, he would have to cross immediately, or there could be grave consequences—like what had happened to his cousin who had a KKK lynch mob after him. As a teenager, I would roll my eyes at Ron's relentless suspicion of people, which I felt verged on paranoia. But after hearing his stories, I finally understood why he had every reason to doubt, question, and side-eye a situation that didn't pass his smell test. I don't think all his fears were warranted, but now I whole-heartedly understood why he had them.
Ron died the week I started writing this book. He lost his life from complications due to exposure to Agent Orange during his service as a marine in Vietnam. His voracious lifelong love affair with Southern food, or what he called "good living," also likely contributed to his death.
It was heartbreaking to lose him at such a pivotal point in the project, but when people die, it calls us to look back on their lives, and it wasn't until he died that I realized how much of Ron's life experiences touched nearly every chapter of this book. We talked more the year before he died than we had at any other time in our lives. I suspect he knew he was dying, but he didn't tell anyone. When I was home visiting during this period, almost every evening, at a time when he would normally have gone downstairs to his man cave, instead, he would sit with me on the couch and show me pictures and tell me stories.
Ron was so proud of the work I was doing. He told me this book had to be the most important thing in my life. "Don't worry about anything else," he said. "Don't let anything distract you. You don't need to be out there gallivanting," using his favorite word for what I did. "Just sit still, be quiet, and write this book." I had already written two other books, but he and I knew this one was different. After learning about the 'Green Book', I, a black woman who has driven over half-a-million miles documenting American culture over the last twenty years, never looked at travel, or even America, the same way again.
As I grieved Ron's passing, I wrote every morning, watching the sun rise across the Bisbee, Arizona, mountains. I recounted all the conversations we'd had, and just like that, as Ron guided me through every page, he went from being my guardian to being my guardian angel....
...Once I hit the road scouting Green Book listings, I drove nearly forty thousand miles on America's two-lane highways, across acres of wide-open plains and deserts, over mountains, and along coastlines, but I also passed miles of blight and boarded-up buildings in Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. After seeing communities decimated by poverty, crime, and destructive government policies, I was bewildered, brokenhearted, and then furious that human beings were living in such inhumane conditions.
Ron was my comrade while I was on the road researching this book. We spoke regularly on the phone, and as he requested, I texted home every day, giving him detailed accounts of my travels. He was worried for my safety, and I couldn't blame him. He had every reason to be concerned, but he never discouraged me from doing this work. Instead, he supplied me with a stun gun, a knife, and a canister of Mace. And then he taught me how to use them. On the road, I was verbally threatened, chased by dogs, physically lunged at, and nearly physically assaulted. I understood the risks, and took things one day at a time. The only moment I really feared for my life was when I was scouting Green Book sites on the South Side of Chicago. Fifty-three people had been shot the same weekend I was there. Although I was trained in Model Mugging (a program of self-defense for women), and Ron had taught me self-defense techniques, there was nothing I could do to stop a stray bullet. On the days when I was too nervous to get out of my car to pump gas, or the times when it was too dangerous to stand on the streets to photograph sites, I thought, Isn't this ironic? The whole point of the Green Book was to keep black motorists safe on the road, and it's eighty years later, and I can't find a safe place to use the bathroom.
As I crisscrossed the country with a knife under my seat, a stun gun in the car door pocket, and Mace behind the gear shift, the words Victor Green wrote in his introduction to the Green Book rang through my mind: "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication[,] for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year."