Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Helpfulness, Foolishness, and Assumptions

The other evening, on my way home from my church gig, I stopped to help someone.

I don’t say that to toot my own horn. I’m not advertising for good karma, or “what goes around comes around.” It just made me think of a few things.

 

The basic layout of the event was: it was a few moments before sunset on a late-October Sunday evening, and I took my usual shortcut through the back streets of Worcester to get home. During rush hour, I can avoid getting caught in stop-and-go (and mostly stop) traffic; and at any other time, well … it’s just habit now.

A minivan sat at the end of the street that re-connected with the larger avenue which I would otherwise have used. Its right-turn signal was on. So I pulled in behind it. The line forms to the right, and all that. The driver got out, and at first I thought he was just waiting to pick someone up and was making a big show of waving me past (as Bill Cosby once said, “Come around, idiot! Come around!”).

Then I noted that he was looking at me and waving a finger. Didn’t think I’d done anything wrong, but in a city like Worcester with its share of weird driving customs, I might have. He looked agitated. This is not always the best sign. I thought he looked a bit frantic. And then I got a bit frantic when he came around to the passenger side of my car. But for some bizarro reason, I rolled down the window.

I know. It’s a dangerous world out there; what were you thinking, Rob? I’m not sure, other than, “for all I know, in a moment I could be a current event.” I’m not here to claim that some higher power was assuring me it would be all right. All the safety manuals in the world tell you not to do this. I might have been on the verge of being carjacked.

Hello!” he said. “Could you do me a huge favor and give me a lift to the gas station on Park Ave.? I ran out of gas. I passed eight stations and thought I could make it to where I’m going. Can you help?”

Sure,” some other voice than my own said.

So he trotted back to the minivan, put the hazard lights on, locked the doors, and came back to my car. And climbed into the passenger side seat. Maybe I should say he shoehorned himself in. He was a big fella.

Thanks a million, man. I was gettin’ worried.”

No problem at all.” And it actually wasn’t. I was not far from my house; neither was that gas station, past which I bicycle all the time; and I had no particular need to get home in a screaming hurry.

I can’t believe I didn’t stop at one of those gas stations before. Just stupid.”

Hey, it happens.”

My fuel light was on and everything. I hoped I could get to the dinner party I’m going to, and then figure it out from there.”

At the gas station, the attendant loaned the man a plastic gas container, which he filled and then set gently in the back seat of my car. Again he clambered into the front seat. This more than resembled my attempts to sit in my five-year-old nephew’s little toy two-seat pedal truck. There should have been cartoon sound effects.

We drove back toward the man’s gas-less van.

I really appreciate this, man.”

Not a problem,” I said again.

In this day and age, most people drive by; they won’t stop. It’s a crazy world out there, and who knows what crazies are out there? And when you’re really in trouble, people probably worry that you’re one of those crazies.”

I hear you,” I nodded, waiting for the next sentence. I’ve seen my share of bad movies. Speaking of crazies…

Must have been twenty cars passed by. Maybe I didn’t look pathetic enough.”

I smiled. “Glad we got you helped out, then.”

We arrived at his mini-van. He wrestled himself out of my car, fetched the gas can, and paused before going to refuel the van.

Really. I owe you. Didn’t know what I was going to do there for a while. My name’s Ben, by the way.” He shook my hand. “I’m Rob,” I replied. “Good to meet you.”

Same here, believe me. Thanks again.”

And I drove off, not neglecting to consider that if things had gone a little differently, I could have become a news item, or at least a detail in the Worcester police logs. I wondered what had possessed me to open the window and talk to the man, or in fact what had caused me not to hit the gas and just go go go. I wasn’t in a bad section of Worcester, but sometimes one can’t be sure what’s a bad section of any town and what isn’t. It is, as Ben said, a crazy world.

 

Here’s a little detail to add to what was a thoughtful remainder of the evening:

I look somewhat like the actor Bob Balaban, which is to say, middle-aged, bespectacled, bearded, thinning hair, and not the most imposing-looking guy in the world.

He looked remarkably similar to Ruben Studdard – if, instead of singing on American Idol, Ruben was driving a mini-van in central Massachusetts, and if he wore tattered sweatshirts and jeans instead of glitzy famous-person clothes. Ben was a BIG fella.

In short, not to put too fine a point on it: I was white and he was black.

 

I’m not here to brag that I am so racially color-blind that I didn’t notice this. I’ve known black people and white people, I’ve had black and white people as friends and colleagues, but I’m not here to try and convince anyone that my reaction was totally, utterly free of an awareness of our respective racial backgrounds.

I’m not here to boast that I could sense something about the situation that told me it was perfectly OK and perfectly safe and that I wasn’t about to become a statistic. When Ben first came around to my car window, I will admit that I thought, “for all I know, it may have been a wonderful life.”

I would like to think that I would have said that if Ben had looked like George Lopez, or Jackie Chan, or Jackie Mason, or James Mason. Or Bob Balaban. I would like to think that I am so open-minded that Ben’s racial background wouldn’t have mattered at all. But I grew up in the 1970s in an affluent suburb of Boston, amid not exclusively but mostly white persons, and I bring with me the subtle baggage of that time and place. As much as I consciously work to fight against it! – because I know we’re all God’s children, and we all might easily run out of gas at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night and need someone’s help; and if I ever find myself in that situation, I would be pleased if someone stopped to help me, no matter what they looked like.

But if I ever AM in that situation, here’s the rub: there are stereotypes which have been out there for a very long time, and which (in spite of all our best efforts) are still out there, about who looks threatening and who doesn’t.

I don’t look threatening. Seriously. That’s not even a personal bias about myself; I just don’t. And therefore I don’t have to deal with society’s stereotypes about how threatening I would look to many people if I were six foot tall, three hundred pounds, and black.

But Ben does.

We didn’t talk specifically or explicitly about race. But in this world, sadly, there are pre-existing notions about who is more likely to be a “crazy”; about who is more likely to be a carjacker; about who is more likely to rob you; about who is more likely to bomb a building. And far too often they’re based strictly on looks.

 

I was glad Ben got where he was going that night. I was glad I got where I was going. (Mom, if you’re reading this: I promise to be a careful citizen in the future, as well as a caring one.) But I was more than a little sad that I had so much to think about afterward.

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October 24, 2011 - Posted by | civil rights | , , ,

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