Whenever the storm clouds of racial ugliness blow in, as they have most recently with the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, I look to the Hernando County YMCA for refuge.
It's always struck me as a place of unusual peace, where black and white retirees — the age group usually presumed to be the most prejudiced — seem most at ease with people of different races.
White-haired folks chat all through their cardio workouts on side-by-side treadmills or spot each other on the weight bench. Whether they are white, African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic seems to make zero difference.
The public accessibility of the YMCA (full disclosure: my wife is board chairwoman) plays a part. But those hours on elliptical trainers have given me time to come up with the theory that there's something else, something bigger going on: After a certain age, whatever people's attitudes about race, they are old first — fighting through herniated discs and high blood sugar, concerned about adult children and 401(k) plans — and black or white second.
So, is there any truth to that?
Yes, said Helen Hause, 78, a retired nurse who lives in Spring Hill:
"We're all out here for the same reason: getting the old body moving."
Robert Herman, 77, sitting next to her Friday morning at a table where regulars stop for coffee, said he works out with a "black lady whose husband just had a stroke. I had a stroke, and he was going through a lot of the same things I was going through. … I talk to her just like I talk to my sister."
Herman and Hause are white. Charles Smith, 79, a member of the YMCA here for 12 years and in Queens, N.Y., for 30 years before that, said that as a black man he has been able to make friends from all backgrounds over the years, some of whom he still keeps up with.
"You cross-pollinate at the Y," he said. Not because people are old, but because they are all motivated to put on shorts and T-shirts and work out.
"Yes and no," said Lossie Swindell-Moss, 75, of Timber Pines, when I asked her about racial harmony among retirees. She doesn't see it in the outside world and not even everywhere at the Y.
"It sort of starts to drift apart when you get toward the coffee tables," she said.
Ahh, the coffee tables. They are to the Y what cafeteria tables are to high schools — the place where concerted, discretionary socializing goes on and where, Swindell-Moss notes, you rarely see a black person.
Why? When the conversation gets beyond aching joints, it tends to move on to politics, said Swindell-Moss, an African-American and a retired procurement agent for Scripto Pens. Once there, black people often see racism where white people don't. Such is the case with the amped-up anti-Obama chat that often blares from Fox News Channel on the Y's television sets.
"When they say, 'Take back the country,' what they really mean is 'Get that black man out of the White House,' " Swindell-Moss said.
Back at one of the coffee tables, which, indeed, was populated by all white folks, I brought up the subject of Martin.
Bill Williamson, 84, of Timber Pines noted that although Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were quick to see racism in the teenager's shooting, they said nothing about Nicholas Lindsey, the black teenager convicted two weeks ago of killing a white police officer in St. Petersburg.
"To me, that's racist," Williamson said.
So, what's the conclusion? Well, just because we share a gym doesn't mean that we always share opinions. Friendliness doesn't necessarily equal friendship.
Still, friendliness is a good start.
As I edge toward my own retirement years, the early-morning crowd at the Y doesn't seem nearly as ancient as when I started working out here 20 years ago. And on Tuesday, I had a long talk with a lanky, amiable black guy. I didn't catch his name, but we both had a lot to say about our aching backs.