Once a week, I hike down to Groundworks, a really good coffee emporium, about a twenty-minute walk from our house. It’s a pleasant stroll and, especially on the way back where’s there’s a steep hill – there’s actually a steep hill in both directions, but on the way back, it’s up – the walk satisfies my requirements for aerobic exercise.
I prefer hiking someplace. I appreciate its destinational intent. Much better than walking nowhere. This from a man who walks on a treadmill four days a week, the epitomizing definition, I would think, of “walking nowhere.”
What can I tell you? I’m complicated.
So I’m heading back home, sipping my freshly brewed coffee as I go. Though my house is on the west side of the street, I always take the east side, because at that time of day, that’s where the sun is. When you grow up in Canada, the sun, despite medical warnings to the contrary, exacts a siren-like draw.
“You have skin cancer.”
“Yeah, but look at my tan!”
I am almost home. A few more steps, I cross the street, and I’m there. In anticipation of opening my front door, I extract my keys from my workout pants, and I hold them in my hand. I am notoriously early on my “key extraction.” Most people would likely wait till they’re at least on the porch, but I am not a “last minute” kind of a guy. When I’m driving, I habitually put my signal on long before I’m ready to make my turn. Sometimes, I do it the day before.
“I will be turning right tomorrow. Cars behind me take notice.”
Yeah, I know. I’m a menace. Good things there’s no ticket for “signaling too soon.” Is there?
Okay, so I’m directly across the street from my house, keys reassuringly in hand. I check the traffic, and am just about to cross the street.
That’s when I see him.
Half a block away, a black man, of approximately middle age, is walking down the street, heading straight in my direction.
What do I do?
If I cross the street now, he might think that I’m doing it, you know,
Because of him.
“I know that one.”
And he probably does.
The cross, in truth, is entirely without implication. No malice. No prejudice. Nothing in any way discriminatory should be read into it And yet, the fact that a male member of an historically mistreated minority happens to be heading towards me as I make my completely innocuous move, seems, in my liberal guilt-driven thinking, to alter the equation.
An old white guy…“brandishing” keys…deliberately crossing the street…?
It just didn’t feel right.
I could obviously just do it. Cross the street to my house, as I’ve done on hundreds of occasions in the past. But those occasions were ones in which racial considerations were not in the mix. Most times, there was nobody on the street. Or somebody walking a dog. What kind of misunderstandings could that suggest?
“Ginger’s a four-pound puppy. And you’re crossing the street to avoid her?”
Nobody cares. But in this case,
The man might.
One possible strategy was for me to stall. Pretend I was stopping on the sidewalk to drain the last few drops of my coffee, smack my lips, maybe sigh in satisfaction, and go on my way, after the man had crossed my path. I might even smile, offer a cheerful “Good morning” as he passed. But it all seemed utterly contrived (because it was). Patronizing even.
I thought about explaining.
“It’s not you. Really. That’s my house. Right there, across the street. I’m just going home. Nothing more to it than that. And by the way, I’m really sorry about slavery. And I know ‘Jim Crow’ was no picnic either. Another ‘by the way.’ I’m from Canada. We had nothing to do with any of that.”
But a pronouncement of that nature, especially in the nervous and apologetic tone that would certainly accompany it – could make him, okay both of us, very uncomfortable.
Discretion…is the better part of weaseling out.
Which is finally what I did.
I crossed the street, allowing the approaching source of my discomfort to think whatever he wanted. Full disclosure: I actually hesitated in the middle of the road, considering returning back to the sidewalk – for what purpose, I have no idea – causing an oncoming driver to screechingly brake, then angrily honk his horn.
“What did he die from?”
In the end, I traversed the street, and re-entered to my house, hoping the man would sense the purity of my motives, and not take offense.
Hopefully, that was the case.
But I will never know for sure.
And now, a discriminational “off the hook” song, from a Broadway musical called Avenue Q.