I had to go to the post office today, so I walked from home to Husband’s work to have lunch with him first. Both his work and the post office are about a mile and a half from home through the city, and it’s legitimately easier and faster to walk than drive (plus bonus steps).
So I set out this morning with plans to “mind-write” (plot out where a couple stories are going) as I went. That didn’t happen.
As I waited for the walk sign to cross the street, I saw a man coming toward me. He was walking during a green light and had traffic stopped, a dick move for sure. I guess I should describe him here: a few inches taller than my 5’4″, low to average weight, black, maybe 40s, and most likely homeless from the state of his clothes and dental hygiene, but not something you’d notice immediately. When he got to my side of the street he said “hello,” and because I am who I am, and I was feeling rather good, I greeted him back. I was, after all, about to go in the exact opposite direction of this man, and the light was just changing. Perfect: the part of me that gives way too many shits about what other people think was appeased by being nice, and the more animalistic, don’t-get-murdered side was content that this potential danger was being avoided.
But what a fool I was because this man didn’t really have anywhere to be and immediately started talking to me. He began referring to me as “mami” (which was really odd since neither of us were Hispanic–later, when I said to him “Mami? I’m no one’s mother,” he told me he was adopting me as his mom), but he wasn’t being overtly sexual or creepy, just started having this conversation.
The first thing I asked him was “Didn’t you just cross this street?” I was on high alert at this point. The direction I was headed was into a neighborhood, no longer on the main road, so there would be way fewer people and cars.
But he responded jovially, “I just need somebody to talk to.”
Here’s the thing, Dear Reader, I would never advocate for anyone to talk to strangers. It really just is not safe. If I were reading this story, I’d be screaming in my head “RUN, BITCH, RUN!” However, I know that in my heart, kindness costs nothing. Still, I laughed and said, “There’s a guy who works at the gas station. He’s probably bored behind that counter all day; you could talk to him!”
He shook that off. “No no,” he said, “That guy, well, promise you would get mad or upset by this?”
“Uh, sure?” Though my word should have meant nothing to this stranger.
“That guy in there, he’s a jerk. He doesn’t uh…well,” he stumbled over this, not because he didn’t have the words for it, but because he didn’t have the words for me to explain it, “I get the feeling he doesn’t like people of the African American persuasion.”
I had a tiny conversation in my head at that moment. Because I was already over analyzing everything anyway and planning how not to die, I really thought about what he was saying, how, and, why. Why would it offend me, a white woman, if he told me the Middle Eastern guy at the gas station was racist? Wouldn’t he know better than anyone? Did he expect me to argue with him? Was I really in the position to be argumentative?
“I can see that,” I finally told him, “A lot of people are.” I thought back to seeing This Is America for the first time this morning.
So we started to have a conversation. Well, he started to have a conversation at me. I’m not good with new people, even when I’m fairly certain they won’t kill me, so you can imagine my discomfort, but when he reiterated he just needed someone to talk to, I decided I could be that person. I’ve been practicing my whole life at being a listener. Even though I knew the conversation had an ulterior motive, and it was essentially a lie, though more like a mask. Heck, maybe it was true. Does anyone talk–really talk–to homeless people?
First we made small talk, and he used the time to comment on me (this is where we discussed how I wasn’t anybody’s mother), that I was talking to him and he was shocked, and then asked me what was wrong with my shoulder. I’m fairly pale and have freckles from years of sun damage, but he was actually referencing my acne. (It’s really blossomed in the last few months, but thankfully only on my back.) I explained to him what it was, and assured him that no, it was not contagious when he asked. I laughed because here was this man, pointing out something that’s pretty gross and should make me self conscious but I weirdly didn’t feel bad about it, and he wasn’t making me feel bad. It was just a thing we were discussing.
So I played therapist. “What’s going on? Why are you having a hard time? Let’s get to the crux of this.” (So you will go away was the underlying message though delivered with a smile.)
“Well, now, I don’t want to scare you,” he tells me.
Too late, I think.
“I just spent 12 years incarcerated for a crime I didn’t commit.”
I didn’t want to know the specifics, so instead we discussed the lack of a rehabilitation process in our criminal justice system and the ways the country uses mental health and psych wards as weapons instead of helpful tools. This stranger was well-spoken (despite not really knowing what acne was), clear, easy to understand, and didn’t strike me as someone who’d been to jail. Of course, the tale he told me was so he could get to the point: he was down on his luck. But we had the conversation nonetheless.
This morning when I got dressed, I grabbed a pair of shorts out of the clean clothes basket and found there was a five dollar bill in the pocket. I very rarely have cash, but on this day I actually had that five in my pocket. Of course I was going to give it to him, this was ultimately what he wanted and we both knew that. So I told him this story: I have $5 that I’m going to give you, but isn’t it strange because I only just found it this morning and this is the day we meet.
He looked close to tears, and he hugged me. This was way too much for me, and I tried explaining to him “I don’t hug strangers” because of “things that have happened to me in the past.” This, he tells me, hurts his feelings. The feminist in me wanted to have the “your feelings aren’t more important than my safety” conversation, but I hadn’t been murdered yet and I wanted to stay not dead which is an even bigger comment on feminism without anything being said, so I just moved on.
“What’s your astrological sign?” my new friend asked me.
This, like many things I said to him, made him laugh uproariously. I was “a mess, girl, just a mess” but also “a firecracker” and “full of surprises.” He guessed cancer or libra, and I told him “Wow, I was born right on the cusp of cancer and leo.” He was very excited to have gotten it almost right. “Okay, you do me now, what do you think I am?”
“Well, I don’t know much about the other signs, just myself,” which is mostly true, but he insisted. “Okay, sagittarius.”
“My sister’s a sagittarius!” he throws his hands up, “But me, I’m aquarius.”
“Hm,” I smile, “Yeah, I can see that, like the water, meandering and adaptive.”
“You,” he points at me, “You know more than you let on. You’re the kind of person who won’t let other people know that you’re superior to them. You bring things down to other people’s level.” I’m just laughing at this, and he goes on to tell me how cool I am, and I say to him, “You’d be the first person to ever say that to me.”
“Listen, Ashley,” because at this point we’d traded names, “When someone tells you they think you’re cool, you’re supposed to say ‘I know.'”
And all I can do is laugh because I very frequently do just that. I’m always jokingly full of myself with people I know, but in talking to strange men I’ve learned that being humble and demure can save your life, and here this person is who, by all rights, I should be afraid of, teaching me to do a thing that really isn’t safe for women to do, and it was all so preposterous.
We parted ways soon after that after I insisted I had to go meet my husband who he definitely didn’t believe existed. Enough other things happened to write a whole series of blogs (specifically a blog called “There’s A Special Circle Of Hell For Women Who Don’t Help Other Women But I Guess That’s Pretty Sexist Too”), but I’ve expended enough energy on this encounter for one day. The point? There isn’t one. I’m in no way advocating speaking to strangers, ignoring your gut, being kind because it’s free. I’m also not advocating against those things. What happened today was rare, but probably only because we don’t let those things happen, but we certainly can’t be blamed for disallowing them.
But don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a feel good story. When I walked home I prayed not to run into him again which I admittedly feel guilty about: our conversation had the potential to be very pleasant had I not been riddled with anxiety. And I didn’t die, right? But really, how fucking stupid is it I felt guilty? No one has a right to anyone else’s time ever. All I wanted was to think about what was about to happen to Lorelei and the gang, but even on the way home I couldn’t because I was on even higher alert plus chastising myself for the whole thing which was even dumber: I had very little control over that whole situation.
So I mean, I don’t know, Dear Reader, take from this what you will. Sorry I didn’t say “fuck” very much.