25 February 2009

Just a black man in the wrong neighborhood

I was walking on the sidewalk toward my apartment from my car this evening when an old white van pulled up.

"Excuse me, sir," a gruff voice said.

I turned and saw a middle-aged black man pulling out a binder. Oh, shit, I thought. I had just been to the store and was carrying several bags of groceries, as well as my laptop bag. I wasn't in the mood to listen to his rehearsed spiel and politely turn down -- multiple times -- what I assumed to be some scheme.

"Do you know where Bobby and Steve's Auto World is?" he asked.

"Uh, yeah," I muttered, thankful that he was only asking for directions. The man hopped out of the van and walked toward me.

"Ya see, I got this truck, and I just got hit. My thumb's all busted. Probably broke. See?" He showed me his oddly-bent thumb and pointed to a crudely drawn picture of rectangles in his binder. "And I called Bobby and Steve's and they on their way here and I got my little girl with me. This man's watching my little girl. Ya see, just up there." He pointed to the north, but I didn't see anything. "Ya see, Bobby and Steve's is coming to drain my one tank and tow my truck. It's my job, and I'm short $8.75 for the tow. That man gave me his van to use to get the money. I'm a good man, ex-Marine. See I got my card."

The man started to fish something out of his pocket. Please don't pull out a gun or knife, I thought.

"I know this don't look good," he said while thumbing through the cards and slips of paper in his stuffed wallet. "I'm a just a black man in the wrong neighborhood. But I swear I was a drill sergeant."

"Uh," I stammered, pulling out my wallet. "I only have four dollars on me."

"Any bit will help. You write down your name and number and address, and I'll make sure you get your money back."

"Don't worry about it," I said, not out of charity, but out of the assumption he was still be pushing some scheme and wanted my information. I pulled out the four dollar bills, clutching my wallet, afraid he was going to grab it and run. He took the cash and went back to his van.

"Bless you, sir," he yelled out as he drove away.

And I continued to my apartment, a weird feeling settling in my stomach. Seemingly, I helped the guy out the best I could, and it wasn't a big deal. And that's that, right? But the whole time I was so suspicious. Every step of the way I thought the worst of him.

I started to think about a substituting job I had two months ago, when I watched a 60-year-old white teacher with her class of first graders, all of them black. When I walked into the classroom, she told me to put my wallet and phone in my bag, which she locked in a locker with her belongings.

"That one tends to walk away with things, don't you?" She pointed to a 7-year-old boy who was coloring a chart of numbers, and when he saw that she was pointing at him, he smiled, unaware of the indictment.

I don't think this teacher thought of herself as being racist, but she definitely thought that her students didn't know how to act properly.

At one point, before she left to go to a meeting (which was why I was there to substitute), she attempted to read to them from a picture book about families. It was one of those cheap schmaltzy books: This is the father. He works in an office. This is the mom. She likes to make sandwiches! This is Jake. He loves his mom and dad. Do you love your mom and dad? And the kids fidgeted through the whole thing, whispering to each other and periodically interjecting questions and comments out loud.

"I live with my auntie," a girl blurted with excitement, as though she had been holding it in and couldn't anymore.

"You!" The teacher pointed straight at the girl. "You are not to talk!" The girl lost her smile and slouched down.

While putting my groceries away, I kept hearing, "I'm just a black man in the wrong neighborhood."

And I realized the weird feeling settling in my stomach was the knowledge that at least part of me, a dark part somewhere deep inside of me, agreed with him and had since the moment he had pulled up in the van.


  1. thanks for the honesty, tanner. it was very refreshing and a reminder that we still need to combat our inherent fear of difference/the big scary "other".