Natasha Tooson takes two bites of her chili-spaghetti four-way. Already, the slight young woman is fed up.
Too many Americans, she groans, eat a steady diet of racial stereotypes. "Blacks think whites get everything handed to them on a silver platter. Whites think blacks are on a free ride," she says.
"I just think everybody should worry about themselves." She goes back to twirling a strand of spaghetti from her plate at the Skyline in Mason.
The restaurant is her regular, lunch-time haunt. "I'm addicted to the chili."
The Mason Skyline is just minutes from where she works at GE Capital.
"My title is 'collections coordinator.' But I'm just a bill collector." She goes to Skyline to collect her thoughts. It's where she wanted to meet for "Lunch with Cliff," where I buy the midday meal in exchange for people telling me what's on their mind.
"I'll tell you why I wanted to do this," she says, using her fork as a pointer.
"Sometimes, I feel people don't think someone like me exists." She looks down at the table. Then, looks up and - in one breath - announces:
"I'm a young black person who is trying to get ahead, working, paying taxes, not in jail, not doing drugs, not trying to rob anyone. "I'm not pregnant. I have no kids. I'm single. I don't believe in affirmative action in education. And I'm not on a free ride.
"I don't even know where any of these mysterious free rides are," she adds, gulping in some air.
"But - I'm not going to lie - I'd be happy to get one. I'm busting my butt going to school and working."
Natasha is 19. She's five credit hours shy of being a sophomore business major at Xavier University.
How did she become so confident to be so outspoken?
"I've always had an opinion about everything." But, she adds, "I've still got a lot to learn."
Funny comment, I say. Many people her age figure they know it all.
"They do?" she asks. "Well then, they're one up on me."
The only ride Natasha takes is when she gets into her black Sentra, college textbooks piled on the back seat, and drives from Hartwell to work.
"I'm living with my sister until I can get enough money for my own place," she says. "I made the mistake of moving in with another person, and it messed up my finances."
She offers this advice for "any 19-year-old who wants to leave home" while going to college and working full time: "Don't." At work, Natasha's constantly on the phone calling Macy's credit-card customers about their overdue bills.
"You have to smile when you call," she says. "People hear that. You also need to show a note of concern in your voice. Otherwise, they feel you're picking on them."
Lowering her voice, she talks about making these calls and "feeling like such a hypocrite. I've got bills to pay, too. I'm not in good financial straits."
Sometimes, when the stress at school and on the job becomes too much, Natasha feels she's missing something. Her teen-age years are almost over.
"I'm not living like a 19-year-old," she says. "I don't get dates. I don't have any time. I go to work and come home and go to classes." Last semester, she tried juggling school, work and weekend parties. She felt "like a teen-ager again. I had a lot of fun." But her grades suffered.
"Now, the parties are over. Time to get in gear again."
She knows her gumption defies stereotypes.
"People think young blacks just goof off. It's true, lots of them do goof off. So do lots of young whites."
This woman is clearly no goof. And she doesn't want anyone to think "there's anything extraordinary about me."
She's just pursuing her goals of a "business-suit job," a college diploma and a $40,000-a-year salary.
"I'm going to get where I want to go," she says firmly and with a smile.
"No one's going to hold me down."
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.