So, Friday, I’m walking home from the bus stop after work, having successfully resisted the impulse to have fast food for dinner, when a compact red car pulls to the side of the road. I bend over to see the driver, fearing the worst, and…
Wait. I am getting ahead of myself.
Taking it back to the old school, years ago, probably over a decade ago – if I am going to do this right. See, it was a Saturday. Back in the day I always did my grocery shopping on Saturday. There was an AppleMart mere blocks from my apartment and if I left early enough I could get in and out before the crowds arrived.
I don’t remember if it was a holiday but I remember I was on vacation. I had taken two weeks off, during the winter, because I had to use my vacation time or lose it when the new year arrived. So, I had taken two weeks off and lazed off (lazed around?). I had stayed indoors – it was cold – and apparently let myself go more than I thought, doing nothing, stuffing my face, watching TV and YouTube, daydreaming, playing easy videogames, and draining the batteries in my remote control. I hadn’t done anything productive in about two weeks and that was just the way I liked my vacations.
Anyway. I threw on a pair of old jeans and an oversized thermal sweatshirt over some thermal underwear and shrugged a light winter coat – not the heavy duty one, built for below zero weather. I decided I didn’t need a hat for some reason and stumbled going down the stairwell because I wasn’t used to walking, having spend most of my vacation slouched on my chair, inert and almost brain dead.
It wasn’t too cold outside – I didn’t go back in to get my hat – and I had missed the bus, so I started walking.
And then, as I was crossing the street, just crossing a row of townhouses, a group of youngsters. I was in my forties; they were in their teens or early twenties, and traveling in the kind of completely innocent group that makes people nervous, especially if they are alone. It isn’t a good thing to be afraid of your own race, but a lose group of gangly young black males strolling down a sidewalk makes me wish I knew karate or was safely behind my own closed and locked doors.
One of the hollered out to me as they strolled in the opposite direction.
“Hey. Yo. You looking?”, or something to that effect. I didn’t know what he meant until he said it again and held his forefinger and thumb to his lips, like he was snokng a cigarette or a joint. Then I undersrood.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
They rolled on, turning a corner, looking back at me every so often, until I and they were out of sight.
Trying to sell me drugs. I can tell you, I was shocked – shocked and offended. That someone would try to sell me drugs! Did I look like a drug user? I stumbled on e few more steps, practically agape with amazement. I had been living in that neighborhood for years, and no one had ever suggested I was anything but the most upright, upstanding, teetotalling of citizens.
I was offended – and then the wind kicked up, icy and sharp, and I wasn’t wearing a hat. I have written in this blog before – I don’t like the cold. I turned back to the my apartment building, quickly, before another gust could make me uncomfortable for even one second, and rushed up the stairs, three floors, curious.
They had tried to sell me drugs. Looked at me as if I was a common drug user, and tried to sell me drugs in the wide open like they had never heard of the law. I wanted to know why. I wanted to look in my eyes and see what they had been looking at when they made that disrespectful suggestion.
I wen tot he bathroom. before I got my hat, ands turned ont he light, so I coudl get a clear look, and I looked -.
It had been two weeks, yes, and I had been indoors almost every day, and for some reason, I had not been near a mirror, not that Saturday, certainly, and not the day before, either. And, I was shocked and completely thrown by what I saw. My hair looked like it hadn’t been combed for years, and that a crab had picked through it for weeks, looking for buri3d treasure. My mustache and beard were matted, thick, gnarly, and tangled. I looked like I hadn’t slept in days. I looked…like I had been a a weeklong drug bender.
I looked like a drug user – drawn, tired, in need of a fix to pick me up.
I had to have stared at myself in that mirror for a good five minutes before I reached for the electric razor.
No wonder that had tried to sell me drugs. And, I had left the house looking like that! I had walked down the block, onto another block! I was going to walk into the store, roam the aisles, looking for deals, sales, treats – looking like that! I was going to stand in front of a cashier, looking like that, without even knowing it!
I almost didn’t leave the hose. I was too ashamed. What on earth that drug gang must think of me! But, I left, clean-shaven, hair combed, properly, like an upright citizen.
At The Bus Stop
It was a week day. I was at the bus stop, going to work. A man, black, stops at the red light, almost in front of me. The window lowers, and he offers me a ride, over the the hip hop on the radio.
“Hey, man. You need a ride somewhere?”
I’m innocent and confused. I’m at the bus stop. Ride with a stranger?
And why was he asking me? Now?
“Yeah. I’m sure. Thanks.”
He nods, strangely, and drives away, while the widow rises.
What was that about? Why woudl he stop and offer me a ride? what did he think I was…
Ah! He was soliciting, or he thought I was gay and was offering me sex and a ride. Or he thouht I was a prostitute, working a bus stop. But, I was wearing my work clothes: navy work pants, navy polo shirt, work boots. What!?
Then There was This Guy
I don’t drive. I take the bus. So, when I go shopping, I bing shopping bags, to carry all of the smaller plastic shopping bags, and to give me something to carry them in, if one of the handles should break, which has happened to me, before.
I was walking home, again. I had bought some new large black insulated shopping bags, two, from Amazon, and had them delivered to my job. I was carrying one bag in the second along with my jacket because the fay had gotten warmer than I expected. Just as I was passing Taco Bell, I heard footsteps behind me, shuffling, scuffling. I forced myself not to look behind me, not to panic, not to walk faster, not to shift the bag to my other hand, not to begin imagining the worse, or the most entertaining. Just walk. The footsteps quickened and I subtly made room on my right for the person, who sounded male, to pass me.
Just my bad luck, he didn’t. he pulled up along side me, then matched me step for step. I glanced at him once, practically out of the corner of my eye, and then pretended he wasn’t bothering me. We continued side by side, in silence, me ignoring him, him doing who knew what, until we reached the end of the block.
“What you carrying in that bag?”
Well! I wanted to answer with righteous indignation, with a haughty “That’s none of your business!”, but that was not the appropriate response standing on a street corner in a neighborhood that coudl fairly be called the ghetto, or that is easily within the fringes of it (and don’t ask me how I ended up here; I still don’t know). I was carrying a jacket but I didn’t want him to know that, for some undefined reason.
“A blanket.” Not a great answer. I knew it then. Weak, and a little unbelievable, but the jacket could pass for a blanket, if I didn’t pull it out, so…
I looked away. The street signal changed and we crossed the street. I chose the sidewalk that passed directly in front of a line of townhouses. He stayed on the main sidewalk, the one closest to the street. But he kept step with me. And he kept watching me. I could see him from the corner of my eye..
I – we – finally reached my apartment building, and suddenly, thankfully, there was a wrought iron fence between us, not to strengthen my nerve, or loosen my tongue, or anything foolish like that, but to give me time to sprint for the door if he did anything even slightly alarming.
I was still ignoring him, still pretending he wasn’t making a little nervous, when he said something.
I raised an eyebrow, to signakl I hadn’t heard him.
He said it again.
I took the tiniest step towards the fence, said, “Hm?”
He said it again, just as low.
“You heard me.”
I had heard him, every time, but not clearly the first time, and I thought I was mistaken the second time. He had said, “Is that a kilo?”
As in a kilo of drugs, of marijuana or cocaine, whichever would fit in a large insulated shopping bag.
“Yeah. Is that a kilo?”
“No! It’s a blanket.”
I looked properly confused and surprised and turned away, not pausing to check my mail, but walking casually up the stairs and through the front door of the building, which someone had carelessly left open.
And stopped myself just short of the bathroom mirror when I got in. did I look like a drug dealer? No. surely not. It was the shopping bag that made him think of it, and the silvery interior. Yes. That was it. That was what drug dealers used? Right?
And, then, this past Friday, March the 19th, this Friday, I was walking home, having just passed the midpoint on the longish stretch from the bus stop to my apartment. My new backpack was light, having been emptied of all but the essentials days before, my hiking boots were light, my step had spring and pep, even that late in the day, and I was felling ever so slightly virtuous; I had resisted a powerful impulse, as I was walking past my local McDonald’s, to buy a crispy chicken meal, with medium fries, and a medium orange juice; I would not be so lucky on Saturday.
A compact car, white, removed itself from traffic quickly and stopped at the curb right beside me. I bent over to see in the window, expecting…pretty much anything: a proposition, a clearance sale on weed (still not legal in Missouri), an offer of a ride. A harmless-looking man, white, middle aged, brown hair smiles at me, worriedly, and asked, “You’re not homeless, are you?”
“Oh. Okay”. He seemed relieved as he lowered a meal in a plastic to-go box he had probably bought from the store. He drove off, to find someone homeless, and I continued home, in my work clothes,a nd a black winter coat, with a navy baseball cap, wondering…
A drug user, a prostitute, a drug dealer, homeless.
What do I look like to other people?