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.