Miami -- The incident troubled me for days.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato was a guest last week on "Imus in the Morning," the syndicated New York call-in show hosted by shock jock Don Imus. In discussing the O.J. Simpson trial, Senator D'Amato mocked Japanese-American Judge Lance Ito as "little Judge Ito." The New York lawmaker spoke in a caricature of a Japanese accent. Judge Ito, for what it's worth, speaks flawless English.
Is this, I wondered, what the nation is coming to? I set out to find an answer. Taking a sharp left at Reality, I drove the short distance to Misperception County and into the city of Stereotype.
Where this black guy robbed me. Seven feet tall, he jammed a handgun into my ribs and said, "Gimme yo' watch!" Terrified, I did, and he fled.
Heaving a sigh, I continued down the street, stepping over a drunken Irishman sprawled in the doorway of a pub. Passing a pawn shop, I was stunned to see my watch already on sale in the window. The Jew inside said he would sell it to me for $200. It was ridiculously high, but he wouldn't budge, so I paid.
When I told him my mission, he followed me out to the street, where I stopped the first passer-by. "Excuse me," I said, "I'm a journalist looking for comment on Senator D'Amato's faux pas last week and on the general topic of stereotyping."
She gave me a vacant look. "Huh?" she said, dully. "I'm sorry," I said. "I did not realize you were Polish."
I tried again, hailing a woman with 12 kids in tow. "I'm writing a story on stereotypes," I said.
Looking up at me from under the brim of her huge sombrero, she hunched her shoulders and gave me an apologetic grin that revealed crooked, gray teeth. "No speak Ingles," she said.
"Not even a word?" I said. She thought for a moment and said, "Welfare?"
"I'll tell you about stereotypes," said a rednecked man, climbing out of a gun rack-accessorized pickup, followed by a bunch of dirty, barefoot children and a dirty, barefoot wife who resembled him so closely she might have been his sister. "Next to guns 'n' God," he began, "stereotypes is what made this country great. I -- "
"Pardon me." It was the black guy again. Eight feet tall, he jammed a bazooka into my ribs and said, "Yo, I be wantin' dat watch, cuz!"
I gave it to him, and he handed it to the Jew, who gave him $25. The black guy fled. "How much?" I asked the Jew. Moments later, $300 lighter, I returned to the redneck.
"Without yer stereotypes," he continued, "how would you know what th' other fella's all about?"
"Maybe you could get to know him?" I suggested.
He gave me a look. "Y'know," he said, "you're a funny guy."
"By the way," I asked, scribbling furiously, "what's your name?"
"Sure," I said, chuckling. "Everybody's got a name. You're an individual, aren't you?"
Suddenly the air ran cold and still. I looked up. No one breathed.
"Oy," said the Jew.
"Caramba!" said the Mexican.
"Hiccup," said the Irishman.
"Duh," said the Pole.
The redneck's mouth puckered. He answered me in a strained voice.
"Yeah, we got some . . . individuals in town," he said. "Generous Jew, honest black guy." He covered his wife's ears with his hands before adding, "Literate redneck."
"But we don't have much truck with that sort," he said.
I tried not to show my feelings, but it was hard to believe a thinking human being -- or a senator -- would willingly still live here. Would America come to this . . . come back to this? Even the dreaded Valley of the Politically Correct was better.
"Ah wants yo' watch!" The black guy was back. Twelve feet tall, he jammed a nuclear-tipped missile into my ribs.
I'd had enough. I took off running, made it to my car. It took a long time to get home. Roads doubled back on each other or ended in blind alleys.
I wasn't surprised. It's always been a lot easier to get into Stereotype than it is to get out.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.