The faint sound of a pop song played on the radio, prompting Dave to nudge me until he got my attention. I could see the reflection of the passing street lights glaring off of his glasses and painting his canvas colored skin. He was doing the usual corny versions of popular black dances, trying to make me laugh. So I satisfied him with a grin, he smiled sealing the moment with a casual fist bump before redirecting his attention to the scenery outside of his window. We were in route to what I had predicted would be one of the worst nights of my life. A friday evening in a cramped mini van, with a group of white strangers, headed to a hockey game.
My loving wife took it upon herself to volunteer my time, to “hang out”, with some of the men in our new neighborhood. I could think of a million other things that I’d rather be doing with my Friday evening. The van jerked to a sudden stop “Damn! Traffic.” Chris yelled squeezing the steering wheel until the blood left his finger tips. Out in front were rows of red lights, and a sound track of car horns, and curse words. “ Its cool, I think I know a back way”, Dan said, as he fervently typed the destinations coordinates into his GPS. “TURN RIGHT AT THE NEXT EXIT”, Chris followed the the robotic voice veering onto a never ending corridor of lonely city streets. I stare out the window following the yellow lines dividing the lanes, and eventually become lost beneath the low hum of the vans engine. I’m no longer with them, I’m back at home attempting to convince my wife that I really don’t need to ”hangout” with a group of white boys, especially at a hockey game. Her rebuttals timely, and oddly convicting:
“Weren’t you the one saying that you wish you could meet some guys in the area?”
“Well, isn’t this what you wanted?”
“Yeah, but not like them.”
“Look babe, just go and try to enjoy yourself. At least the tickets are free, right?”
I guess she was right. I mean, what could it hurt? Although, they were all born and raised on Main Street, they weren’t that bad. Aside from the occasional attempts to relate, they were ok.“…right Marcus?” I jolted out of my day dream, and met Chris’s green eyes staring at me through the rear view mirror. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you”. He smiled and said, “didn’t you tell us before that you were raised on this side of town?” I looked out of the window and found my eyes adjusting to the sight of poorly lit liquor stores, broken sidewalks, and abandoned houses, and passing city busses filled with fatigued faces. This all looked familiar to me and it made me uncomfortable. It brought about a familiar sense of sorrow, and entrapment. A part of me wanted to shut my eyes, and decorate my mind with the manicured lawns of Main Street, and the friendly yet suspicious neighbors that make you feel as comfortable as their fear allows. This place was not just a memory, it was part of me. I breathed the same air as these people, the drum beat of my heart was naturally a part of this ghetto orchestra. Suddenly a familiar sense of uncertainty began to surface. A sense that had become a weapon in my past. It had given me the ability to trust no one. It was this sense that told me what streets to avoid when walking home. The sense that kept me out of iron hand cuffs, and crack houses. The sense that reminded me “tomorrow makes no promises so don’t believe it if it does”.
I could feel Chris’s eyes studying me waiting for my response. But I was to embarrassed to respond. I assumed he knew the mindsets established in areas like these. I’m sure he had an arsenal of racist one liners in his back pocket, and he was just waiting on me to confirm my ghetto affiliation so he could let ‘em loose. Only for me to respond like the thug they wanted me to be. Only for me to curse them in my native ebonic tongue, and sacrifice them to the wolves that roam these ghetto alley ways. Why did it matter where I was from? Why did he have to bring this to my attention right now? Was it to remind me that Main Street wasn’t for me, and that I would never belong? Was it too much for them to see an educated black man with a nice home in their neighborhood? I didn’t care what the reason was, I just knew that I hated them at that moment. I hated that they didn’t know this “colored stranger” well enough to refrain from asking those types of questions. I hated their ignorance, and even more, I hated my sensitivity.
“Marcus” I turned to find the entire cabin watching me. “Yes” I replied “ I used to live here”.
Chris nodded, I felt that he had more to ask, and I was right. “So you must’ve had a pretty rough up bringing huh?”
“I guess. It was pretty average to me” I said. “Well I just know that people in this area don’t really turn out like you. They either end up dead, or in jail.” “You know that for a fact?” I asked. “Well, I ummm…” Chris fumbled over his words, becoming aware of his offensive tone. “Look, you make the most out of the opportunities you’re given, no matter where you’re from. People in this area are raised with a survival mentality, so they do what they have to do to get by. Some rob and steal, because its all they know, and some work hard to make a living. Some parents raise their children to be better than their surroundings. Instilling in them great work ethic and self respect, as my mother did for my sisters and I. Some parents forsake their children leaving this society to raise them, thus making them products of their environment. Not everybody that lives in this area is on drugs, and not everybody has seen the inside of a jail cell. The truth is, half of the drug addicts you see in this part of town are from Main street. They develop their habit on Main Street, and come to the city to lose their inheritance. You would never know it because you would never expect it.”
There was an awkward silence. The kind of silence that meets laughter as it exits the moment.
I could hear Dave swallowing the lump in his throat and, Dan fidgeting with the buttons on his G.P.S. “TURN LEFT ON TO MLK BOULEVARD”, the robotic voice shattered the deafening nothingness allowing us to breathe again.
“Well I’ve never looked at it that way Marcus”, Chris said, pulling into what looked like an abandoned parking lot. He parked and turned off the engine. Turning around in his seat to face me. He smiled as if to say, no hard feelings, but I couldn’t consciously acknowledge his plea for peace. I had become suspicious of Chris, and that same feeling of uncertainty-brought on by my surroundings-added to my reservations . So I nodded, straight faced, he stared at me hoping to find a smile in my stone expression, but his efforts were futile. Accepting his failed attempts at reconciliation he redirected his attention to Dan and Dave.
“Guys the arena is eight blocks up MLK Boulevard, you can see it from here. I figure we save some money, park the van here, and just walk to the arena. How bout it?” They both nodded agreeing with Chris’s plan but I knew better, a part of me wanted to tell Chris to let me pay for the parking and at least that would guarantee our safety. I guess my senses hadn’t fully engaged because before I knew it I was already a block down MLK Boulevard headed to the arena.
I was nervous, for two reasons:
1) I didn’t know if these guys were the fight or ,flight types. 2) This area had become as unfamiliar to me as I was to it.
I could vaguely recognize the streets and the closed establishments surrounding us. It all seemed familiar but unrecognizable. I guess you could say, I felt like a stranger in a somewhat familiar land.
We we’re coming up on the second block, and I was still pretty nervous. The type of nervousness that’s birthed in your mind, and travels to the pit of your stomach. The type of nervousness that tells you that something bad is about to happen. Dave
looked over his shoulder, and called to me, “Marcus, we’re almost there bud! The Tigers are going to kill tonight!” I smiled, and threw up a fist to mirror his excitement. Six blocks away. A sudden feeling of paranoia mounted me bringing tension to my shoulders and neck. My conscience began to tease like a bored child. Moving shadows and flickering street lights threw my senses into a whirlwind of confusion. What was I afraid of? Being robbed? Being shot? Or was it the fear of my white buddies being right about MLK Boulevard? Chris had already expressed his assumptions of this being a “rough” area and rightly so. MLK Boulevard was a far cry from the pristine palaces of Main Street, but I didn’t want them to be right. I wanted them to see that we were people too. That we should not be profiled, or defined by the foolish actions of the thugs in our neighborhoods. That we are not all the same. That you can’t judge a book by its cover, and not everybody wants to rob you, or hurt you. If this was the truth, then why couldn’t I convince myself?
Ironically my paranoia made me oblivious to the black shadow that had been following us since we began our eight block trek. I tried to charge my suspicions to the comfortability that Main Street had provided me. Convincing myself that this was just another local, going about his way; maybe he wasn’t even aware of our presence. Maybe he wouldn’t do us any harm, but my ally-uncertainty- let me know that I should be on my guard. I continued to look over my shoulder, watching as the black shadow grew closer. Hands out of my pockets, fist clenched, eyes locked forward, certain of nothing. Were these the shadows that I remember from my childhood? The shadows that posted under street lights and disappeared at the sight of blue police lights. The shadows that profited from broken homes and bad habits. The shadows that supplied decay, and fear to my community. Could these be the shadows that my mother warned me to stay away from? I could hear the shadow’s approaching footsteps. I felt like a child challenging the monster under the bed, instigating a confrontation, but fearful of its response. My heart began to pound against my ribs like a caged prisoner. Closer. Dave looked over his shoulder and called to me, “Marcus…” The expression on his face was one of shock and bewilderment, almost as if he had seen a ghost. Fear had caused my face to contort into an expression that gave the illusion of anger. “Marcus? You ok bud?” I couldn’t hear his voice over the sound of my own heart beat. Closer. I could feel the presence of the black shadow approaching from behind.
I could hear him breathing. I could feel the hair rise up on the back of my neck and the flush of hot anger overtake me. Before I knew it I had him in my grasp. I could feel my knuckles connecting with every part of him. I couldn’t see anything. I had blacked out. I could only hear an angry voice shouting “Why the hell are you following us huh!” I had no idea that angry voice belonged to me. I was drowning in the darkness of rage, and uncertainty. Flailing my fist in a blind fury. Wanting to stop but too afraid to. I was a prisoner of uncertainty. My ally was now my adversary. Had uncertainty truly been a strength? Had it really protected me against the elements of my environment, or had it made me weak? Had the paranoia of MLK boulevard birthed the debilitating psychosis that enabled me to react like this, or had it been my anger towards Chris’ assumptions? Was the shadow but a symbol of the stereotypes that would follow me for the duration of my life? Is that the reason I attacked it? To kill it? To do physically, to the shadow, what I could never do to Chris’s assumptions? Had my anger derived from my embarrassment? Was the shadow, to me, every thug that ever attempted to take what he hadn’t earned? The lazy no-gooders that give hard working black folks a bad name. The reason why we can never go into a store or any public place without being profiled. The reason why we as black people can never seem to move forward. The reason why we aren’t recognized unless we identify with some foolish stereotype. The reason why I would be justified in killing this shadow. I would soon realize that as Chris, and Dave restrained me, and Dan helped the shadow to its feet, that I was not the victim and my actions would not be justified. In front of me stood a frightened teenage boy with skin like mine. Blood flowing from his nose, and sadness in his eyes. “ I was just trying to get home man. I was just trying to get home”, he said as he quickly gathered the books that had spilled from his bag during the fray, and sprinted down MLK Boulevard. I wished then, that I had never heard those words fall from his quivering lips. I wished, that I could erase the image of his bloody face from my mind. More than anything, I wished that I could alter the realization of the fact that he wasn’t the shadow that I was afraid of, I was.