It was a chilly Saturday night it the midst of January. I just removed my suit jacket from a hanger dangling on a hook in the backseat. I turned only to be startled by a gentleman patiently waiting to ask me for a handout.
“Don’t be afraid, I know I’m a black man.” This was the first thing he said to me.
The man’s statement cut through me much harder than the winter wind that was starting to pick up. I live in the northeast and don’t see myself as a racist. While my initial reaction was one of surprise, it wasn’t his skin tone that caused me to jump, it was the presence of a person standing behind me. Even having to explain this seems odd.
“I’m sorry if I offended you.” These were my first words.
A puzzled looked came over him. He explained that the weather looked like it was changing and he needed just a few dollars to get home He continued by saying that he thought I was afraid because he was black. I must have had the puzzled look. He told me that my first reaction was one he knew well.
I noticed that he was holding a coffee cup from a national chain. He caught my gaze, then described how he just started his second week working for the chain and wouldn’t get paid until the middle of the following week. “Would you like to go back in with me to see I’m not lying.” The man’s need to prove his trustworthiness was palpable.
There was an obvious honesty in his voice, but what concerned me more was the almost visible scars of racism he has endured. I don’t profess to be any type of authority on the matter, but I can notice the pain someone else might be feeling.
My wife had already gone into the restaurant to meet with the people we were joining. I found it more important to have this conversation. I asked the man. “Why do feel the need to defend who you are against the fears of others?” I can see the naiveté of the question, but I’m on a path.
“Sir, you don’t walk on the street at night much, do you?” He let out a laugh
“That’s not my point. If you have to explain that your race doesn’t make you a danger, maybe you shouldn’t be talking to those people.” My words went unanswered.
“Until I got this job, I had to ask for money a lot. Tonight, I’m just in a pinch and don’t want to be caught in the cold, again.”
“I’m not trying to hold you up. I’m angry for you and at those who have lost any empathy they used to have for anyone but themselves.” I explained to him that my frustration wasn't about race. It's about what human nature has become. I told him that I thought that we have all become hardened and isolated. I continued that I can remember when people stopped on the street to say hi or have a conversation. I thought to myself, now we walk pasted one another with our head stuck in some type of electronic elixir intent on being entertained.
He called me a funny man and wondered if I was a teacher or maybe a philosopher. I said yes to both. I handed the man five dollars in singles, that’s all I had in my pocket. He tried to give me back three. This made me laugh.
The man and I shook hands as we said goodbye. We live in a world where physical attributes far outweigh the decency of human kindness. We stood in that brisk air for only a short moment in time, yet we had a lifetime of conversations. I sat at dinner unable to shake the event that took place on the street only minutes earlier. I didn’t feel sorry; instead, I felt passionate. I know that I’m a better person for having been startled by a man who didn’t want to walk home in the cold. I want to stop in and see him at his job, but I fear he’ll think I’m checking up. I wish the unknown man well.
"Writing is the flow of life through words on a page. We all have this talent to share." Luca DiMatteo