On my way to the airport in Ft. Lauderdale, I had to exit the interstate to gas up my rental car before turning it in. I wasn’t thinking about where I was, or even what it looked like; I just needed a gas station.
I was getting ready to fill up the car when these two large, young, black men who were doing the same thing yelled across the station to some other folks: “What’s SHE doing in our neighborhood?” It took me a minute to realize they were referring to me. They then turned their attention to me: “Hey lady, ain’t you scared?” Until that moment, I had not even considered to be nervous about where I was! It actually kind of tickled me. “Of what?” I asked, laughing, “You?” All this while, I was desperately searching for the switch to release the gas cap on an unfamiliar car. I’m convinced manufacturers enjoy making a game of hide and seek with those silly things. When I looked up, the boys were still studying me.
“Hey,” I said, “I need your help; come over here a minute.” The vocal one’s eyes got very wide. Now he looked like the scared one! But, very cautiously, he obeyed me, acting like I was going to pull out a weapon any moment. I showed him my predicament. Immediately, he called to his friend: “Come look at this, James. Your mama has a car like this.” James came over and instantly showed me where the latch was, asking several times if I understood. He said, “I want to make sure you’ll remember next time.” His concern and attention were touching.
I thanked both boys, wished them a good day, and we parted ways. But their images stayed with me for a long time. I wondered if I would have responded the way they did to someone who didn’t look like me at my neighborhood gas station. I feel fairly certain I would not think twice about it, which made me wonder if my neighborhood is more diverse than theirs. (Or, perhaps I have deplorable observation skills!) I also know that, at my gas station, I probably wouldn’t have reached out to someone like them first, had they not acknowledged me (even if it was a sarcastic acknowledgement!) And I am grateful to have had that interaction. For me, it was a lesson that racism can run in many different directions, and that we should always be willing to reach out, no matter how different someone might appear on the outside. My life is just a little bit richer for having run into those two young men. (And bonus: I got to the airport on time!)