Putting Down The Dog

Putting to Rest Little White Dogs
APRIL 24, 2012 1:09AM

My parking lot encounter with a tall, bearded black man

Rate: 22 Flag

It was dark, cold and snowy and the supermarket parking lot was busy.  As I unlocked my car, a tall, bearded black man suddenly appeared from behind the next car and asked if I had jumper cables he could use.  I thought for a few seconds visualizing the two sets of cables hanging in my garage before saying, “No, I don’t.”

The man responded, “Oh, come on.  You do too.  You know you do.”

I was mildly annoyed.  “I don’t have jumper cables in my car,” I replied emphatically.  We both maintained our small smiles.  (It’s Minnesota, we can’t help ourselves.)

“You know you do.  Show me.”

“WTF?” I thought.  (Seriously, I think that way.  It would be pronounced like wutuf if you barely pronounced the u’s.)  I’m tired.  I want to go home.  I am a late middle-aged, middle-class in mindset if not income, extremely white woman with both AAA and Allstate Road Service coverage, an ever-present cell phone and a healthy, strong car battery. I don’t carry fucking jumper cables.

I walked to the back of the car and opened the door speed-thinking I will be so embarrassed if there are cables there’s no way I haven’t used them in ages.  There were no cables.

“Okay, thanks anyway,” the man said as he turned away to scan for someone more likely.

Driving home, I began to feel a little foolish.  I had just been rudely accosted by a big black man in a parking lot where a recent purse-snatching had been followed by a chase and a fatal shooting, in a sketchy neighborhood, and I hadn’t felt the slightest twinge of fear.  Never mind that it was the neighborhood I had grown up in and where I felt at home and comfortable, by now I have learned that the area has always been considered unsafe and it’s supposed to have declined  and become more dangerous in recent years.  Shouldn’t I have been afraid?  Am I so invested in my politically and socially liberal identity, so determined not to be racist, that I am blind to danger?

Involuntarily, an image of my Bachmannite suburban brother came to mind, scornfully muttering, “Are you nuts?”  And the other suburban brother, this one bemused and protective, grinning, “Are you nuts?”  Alone in my car I groused in reply, “Well what the hell was I going to do?”  And I began to formulate my real reply, to myself.

I thought about an incident from the late 1980s that, for some reason, has remained sharp in my memory and maybe even influential to my character.  I was living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where race is far more of a present issue than in Minneapolis, and had read an article about black teen aged boys.  What I took away from the article was that they felt dismissed, diminished, even somewhat less than human when people reacted to them fearfully, moved away from them on the train or crossed the street to avoid them.  The point was that they felt and it was a feeling I could understand and, in a way,  identify with.  It made me sad.  Just in general, people shouldn’t have to go through life feeling like that.  I couldn’t avoid the ugly implications for a society of having large numbers of people carrying that kind of feeling, the belief that the world around them has no regard for them, takes action to avoid them, won’t make room for them and to be reminded of it with virtually every encounter with the world beyond their own families and neighborhoods.  

While the story was still fresh in my mind I went somewhere on the Metro.  I don’t know where I was going, what I was doing or what stop I was at.  I walked on to the train.  There were some empty seats near the door, the obvious place to sit.  But wait!  Those seats were surrounded by young black men wearing the early versions of the garb that is so mocked and disparaged these days as the mark of the thug: huge, baggy,  too short pants worn way too low; huge, baggy, too long jerseys; baseball caps all askew; impossibly white and new looking sneakers.  They were slouching, taking up more than one space per kid.

Thought flash 1: I can’t sit here.  Thought flash 2: that whole damn article and every thought and feeling of my response to it.  So I just sat down in the nearest seat.  And then I looked at a kid.  I looked right at his face and I didn’t immediately look away.  I may have smiled a little if he looked at me, I don’t remember clearly.  But I do remember that at least one kid, a kid in impossibly white and new looking huge, baggy clothes, relaxed.  He may even have smiled back a little bit.  Or maybe I relaxed and just projected that onto the kid.  But he didn’t rob me or kill me or shoot me or hurt me in any way.  None of them did.  

I think that experience may have killed off some fear genes in me so that when that man approached me in the parking lot I didn’t have to be afraid.  I was free to react as a person to a person.

So I’m still driving home from the supermarket and I’m still thinking over the incident with the black man who needed jumper cables.

Before I go on with the story (which is just about my thinking it over, anyway, so please bear with me) I should explain something about life in Minnesota.  There’s a myth out in the world about something that has become known as Minnesota Nice so you might think that even a tall, bearded, black man wouldn’t have too much trouble finding someone to help him in a busy parking lot, even on a cold, snowy night.  Well you’d be wrong.  Just a few days ago, right here on this OS, I had to clarify to a perfectly well-meaning person that the concept known as Minnesota Nice is a widespread misspelling of the true phenomenon that is Minnesotan Ice, known elsewhere as passive-aggression.  It’s true.  (Another, more truthful thing said about Minnesotans is, “You can stop anyone to ask for directions.  Minnesotans will give you directions anywhere except to their house.”  People here have strong and serious boundaries.)

Now you might think I am reflecting the sketchy neighborhood where the incident occurred and you might think people would be more friendly in  better neighborhoods or in the suburbs but you would be wrong.  I am reflecting the realistic, intimate knowledge of the place where I have lived the most formative 38.5 of my 62.5 years.  (And there is extreme blond blindness in the suburbs around here.  Seriously.  It’s weirdly blond out there.)

Back to my reverie.  I put the tall, bearded black man in the place of one of those kids on the train and in the article.  I thought maybe he was just a man who, feeling the exhaustion of having just wrangled the mountain of groceries a family requires while worn out after a day at work,  with a wife and some kids, got it all loaded into the minivan only to find he had a dead battery.  Maybe he was just a man who was tired and cranky and sick to death of people being afraid to interact with him just because he’s a tall, bearded black man; and maybe he was not about to be put off by some scared old white woman who for sure had jumper cables in the back of her car which was in the best position to hook up to his car; and maybe he just didn’t have the energy to rob me or kill me or shoot me or hurt me anyway.

Or maybe he was just rude and demanding.  If one, I did a decent thing.  If the other, I wasn't the rude and demanding one.  Either way I’m good with it.  And if that makes me a bleeding heart liberal, so much the better.  I’m not going around all askeerd and I'm good with that, too.

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"It's weirdly blonde out there." Everywhere.

I had a short stint teaching Acting and English at an inner city magnet school in South Florida and I had that "cross the street when you see a black teen boy" thing conditioned right out of me. At auditions for Othello, it was the guy who had the worst thug rep in the whole statistical area who landed the lead role. He was brilliant. And his blonde Desdemona was the daughter of a multi0million dollar suburban executive. We had to designate specific performances to each gang posse so there would be no friction, but you should have seen who came to the theater those days. All the way from Trump types with blinged up wives to...Well we see them everywhere on the streets. It's all relative.

rated and if I could, many times
Terrific and important piece on the kind of thinking we all gotta have---in some way or another--if we're gonna get along with each other. This is one of the reasons I keep coming back to OS---this is a small gem. A story about thinking something over.

Try finding that on Fox News.
1. Your description of how racism felt from the inside was perhaps the best part of a really good post. (And I spent most of my life in the Maryland DC suburbs, including the late 1980's.)

2. Thanks a second time for your explanation of Minnesota Nice - I was the recipient of the first one.

3. Unless the best part of your post was your description of how you humanized some of the racial fear right out of yourself.

I really like this post. By the way, pimping posts is part of OS life and this one was way worth pimping.
One-on-one decisions and actions like yours could really change things.
I was raised Minnesota Nice (in PA) but now plead guilty to "NYC brusque"--which I use on Jehovah's Witnesses who ring my doorbell.
This is a great post nerd. It's like a in depth soul scan of the inside of your very decent self. I wish everyone including me were as decent.

My first instinct was why did you let ANY man make you do anything? I am wary of anyone who might come up to me like that.

BUT...I'm a strong follower of my heart. If I didn't get a distinct serial killer vibe from him, I probably would have had the same discussion. But I would have been nervous. Not because he's black, but because he's a stranger and I'm alone.

But I don't think I would have opened my car truck for him, because I'm aware that serial killers would love me to make it easy for them to shove me in.

See? that's the NYer in me. Also I spent a number of years reading Patricia Cornwell when she was still good. So I'm too aware that the number one rule of staying alive is: never voluntarily get a car w a stranger, even if it means getting hurt.

So black man, white man, green man, woman or teenager. I will never open my car trunk for a stranger in a place where there's no one around. I hope. But you never know. The heart and mind are crazy things.

You're a good egg nerd. I've known this for a long time....you're so decent I wish you were a neighbor so I could annoy the crap out of you borrowing shit and asking you to watch my stupid dogs once in a while. But I'm a great baker so you'd get fat.

big hug you terrific woman.
I didn't get the pimp mail because for some reason I only get notifications when I get PMs from foreign women who only want to love me the real me based on my something or other.

But this bkig is REALLY worthy of lots of pimping and an EP and FP. And I hope you get it!
I put off reading this because for some unexplainable reason I've had you pegged all the time I've seen you on OS as a smartaleck. I'm now ashamed of that dismissal, as this is one of the most perceptive, discerning and wise essays I've read in this place. My apologies for having miscast you without even trying to get to know you. Now I'm wondering how many other OSers I might have wrongly regarded so dismissively. A wake-up call for me in several ways.

As to the jumper cable request, I think many of us have developed a sixth sense about people that goes beyond stereotyped images. I believe I have this sense and I suspect you have it, too, "Minnesota nice" notwithstanding.
He was of a different mindset and thought like most do without thought. You didn't want to be confrontational which is understandable and you were a woman. Had you been a white male I doubt after no he would have looked elsewhere. He was playing your intimidation factor you did right by just saying no you don't and leaving it at that. Some places you could have been shot just for being there. Caution is always the best bet in our society today anyone could be a deranged crazy Black or White or human. My best to you as always and be careful and safe out there.....o/e
Just realized my last comment might have provoked some laffter regarding my claim to have a "sixth sense" about people, especially coming after my confession that I sure as hell blew that conceit when it came to you.
So annoyed I posted the night before a morning of meetings! I love all the comments - thanks to everyone for reading & writing. I look forward to responding a little later.
This is a great post. My reaction may have been a little different. Whether he was white or black I couldn't have handled his arrogance. I probably would have said, " No I don't have any," and left it at that. And I wouldn't have opened my trunk . You are obviously braver than I. I'm happy you're still here to tell the story. /r
Great post!

I got a little real (as opposed to theoretical) empathy about this feeling those young black men feel when someone came out here to visit - not young/black, he was a middle-aged East Indian (of the very dark southern persuasion) and when he arrived, he complained that he'd stopped somewhere to ask for directions and the people wouldn't answer the door, but were peeking out thru the window. I laughed (okay, my empathy needs a little work) and and said he must have hit the same place I did a few weeks earlier and got treated exactly the same way! (It ain't always prejudice. But if you're a Visible Minority, naturally you're gonna take it that way.)

Anyway, you're Good People. (Mindfulness will do that.)
Just read the comments. Foolish had a very non-foolish point: Jeez, don't let anybody talk you into anything, and in retrospect that opening-the-trunk thing was super-bad. "No sorry", and get in the car quick and lock it is the way to go, even for a charming (or rude) tall bearded black man (towards whom I'd be more inclined to be positive - reverse prejudice thing - and, dammit, I always have jumper cables with me cuz my cars aren't entirely reliable.)
I too understand Minnesota Nice, but I characterize it as Midwestern Nice, having grown up in small-town rural Illinois. My take is that he read your hesitation, remembering your jumper cables were in your garage, as a lie, being he was a black man, and you were a white woman alone in the parking lot. I'm glad you showed him your trunk was empty, but I agree it wasn't the smart thing to do. He could have been the black Ted Bundy.
A couple of general things. I was vaguely aware of a family with this guy. That may have contributed to my not feeling unsafe. I really think the true MN Nice thing would have been to frown a little, politely say I didn't have any and zip into that car and away as fast as I could. No rudeness, no confrontation but no boundary breach, either. Also, the lot was busy enough that someone harming me, especially to the point of shoving me into my car, wouldn't have gone unnoticed. I was never unsafe in reality and I think I should have been direct about that and the fact that a lot of what disturbs me about the widespread fear of black men is that is so often has nothing to do with reality.

The recent (or longer) shooting at this place happened after a purse snatcher ran away and someone pursued him. Both men had guns and the snatcher ended up dead. The dead man was black. The pursuer must have been white because I don't remember his race being mentioned. The shooter wasn't charged.
Linnnn - gang specific scheduling - hard for me to fathom but what an amazing experience it must have been for you.

Kate - see my general comment. I really think it's more about not making a fuss than about helping! I read before that you lived here - and don't any more! :-)

JW - blushing. Thanks.

Chicago - thinking & Fox News too close together - doesn't quite compute, does it?

Kosh - thanks so much. I was in the Derwood boondocks.

dirndl - I think it's about seeing people rather than sex or race. Or people vs. missionaries - who we filter by just not answering the door.

Monkey - see my other comments for the first parts of yours. I'd so love to live in your part of the world - though a little east. And I never say no to either dogs or baked goods so we'd be great neighbors!

CM - don't bother being ashamed - I am often a smart ass and I'm not ashamed of it, either. Sometimes everything important has already been said and it just feels like the right thing. Loved your sixth sense dichotomy.

o/e - I really think my car was in the best position to jump his - that also had a human with it. And I bet a white man would have been more likely to go all manly and not have denied having cables - you know, machines, power, all that ...

Christine - for some reason I've only partly explored, I just hate being fearful.

Myriad - I've been there and now that I'm old a good car is a part of not having to be fearful. The car and AAA & Allstate road service ... I think I may dig out Buber's I and Thou again - where it all started maybe.

ccdarling - good analysis. Luckily, most people aren't Ted Bundy! I have recently heard reference to "WI Nice" & "MI Nice." I think you're correct about MW Nice!

Thanks to everyone for commenting and bringing new food for thought.
I hate that "we", as I have had those thoughts cross my mind before washing them away, feel this way about a group of people just like us, with dreams and hopes and lifes to live. I'm glad you helped ( well you tried) and think life through in this way.
Great story, nerd cred. I didn't know about "Minnesota Nice/Minnesotan Ice", although my mom hails from Milwaukee and I spent a lot of time there as a kid with the relatives and I think they have something similar. Thank you for being so honest about your fears. Rated.
One thing I noticed was the black man's pushiness to question your telling him No, I don't have any. This may be the result of years of societal shunning, or it may be that the guy is just a pushy black guy who doesn't respect people's boundaries, which ironically if he did, others may sense that and be more willing to help him in the future.
"Am I so invested in my politically and socially liberal identity, so determined not to be racist, that I am blind to danger?"

I paused to ponder this...then laughed. I can empathize. Great post and insightful to boot ~
btw ~ my take is that he just had a horribly long day and didn't want to have to approach even one more person...getting turned down is a real ego killer ~
ll - yeah - group identity can be a burden when you have no control over what group you're stuck in.

Erica - someone said it's a midwestern thing and that's probably right. I've heard of WI Nice, too.

Aristo - maybe I should have done a better job describing the man because he didn't seem angry at all, or even that pushy.

Heidi - yup.

And thanks to all of you for reading and commenting (and saying nice things.)
Loved your story of nonfear-based reaction to ordinary life. I'm glad the man (whatever his color) wasn't crazy and didn't topple you into the trunk of your car when he didn't see the hoped-for jumper cables.

Wish I had time to read the comments; I don't. But Chicken Man's jumped out at me as I scrolled through quickly. He made an important discovery today, as did I. Something about your avatar had given me a very different impression of you.

The Minnesotan Ice explanation is very, very funny. Thanks for the beautiful story in this time of too much fear in the world.
This was probably one of the best stories about how human interaction is affected by the daily deals of life -- and then complicated by all the undercurrents of what social "norms" are based on something so simple and ignorant as the color of our skin. These are the stories that should be EPs when written with this level of clarity and introspection.

Brava! Bravissima!
I have been remiss in commenting on this extraordinary post. Yes, I have been preoccupied with other things, but in all honesty, I have been thinking through my response because I want to say what I have to say clearly. Unfortunately, I was about two sentences from finishing my lengthy comment here when OS decided to hiccup and send it into oblivion. So, instead of trying to reproduce it here, I am going to write a post inspired by this beautifully written, honest and brave piece. Stay tuned...

Having an encounter like this makes me think this deeply, as well. I am surprised that you got out of your car and showed him, but then again, it's Minnesota, as you say!! Blessings on you, and your overactive mind...have peace that you are not a racist.
Popped in after reading L in the Southeast's response to your post. Have to say: if it weren't for her intro, your title alone would have given me the impression that this post is about something more ..err..saucy. That being not the case, my two cents worth:

1. Who the hell carries jumper cables these days?
2. That guy was really rude; the fact that it didn't trigger your temper/alarm is a little worrying - and has nothing (for me) to do with his race. Maybe you really are too nice; be careful out there!
3. The fact that you didn't immediately think "Shit! Scary Black guy!" shows you for exactly the kind of person you are- a decent human being. Your internal debate about how you should have reacted is moot - its an important question you raised, and it's certainly worth discussing, but your instinctive reaction shows which side of the debate you're on.