Chicago's temperatures soared into the high 50's today. On the street, everywhere, people were walking around in t-shirts and jeans, smiling and happy. The sun was out. The dawn of spring was nigh. It was the first day of the year that people felt guilty for wasting away hours at their jobs and chores instead of going outside to breathe the seemingly tropical air and feel the sunlight on their arms.
Tonight I pulled into a gas station and some guy was standing around the corner from the front door, skulking in the shadows and looking around expectantly for someone. He kept staring at me. I was going to call my friend Ed, who I always call just so that I'm on the phone if something happens so he can, I don't know, freak out or something. I knew he was on another call (his phone was ringing when I left), so I just got out of the car. The skulker had been peering at the only other person at the pumps, and that person was gone now.
He approached me, this skinny black guy dressed too warmly for a night like this. He started with his pitch. I said, "No," a little too loudly. He backed up. He gave me some story that his car was out of gas. I didn't see any car. I told him I was out of money ("Hey, man, I'm a college student, I'm on my last dollar too. Look at my car," trying to make a joke.) I got inside and told the fella behind the bullet proof glass about the skulker. He walked back out with me, two wary souls out for a fight on the first nice evening of the year.
The skulker was chased off, and the clerk stayed outside with me while I pumped a whopping $10 into my poor car's tank. The clerk was in his 50's and shorter than me by four inches, easily, but his face showed creases that spoke of hard days past. As we watched the skulker flag down people across the street, I thought about my chances of taking on the clerk in a brawl, and the skulker's chances of taking us both. Whether through bizarre curiosity or basic self-defense ("always be aware of your surroundings") I don't know, but this is a question I often ask myself whenever I lay eyes on people. It's just one of those weird tics that makes this monkey different from all the other monkeys crawling around on the planet. The skulker was heading back across to our side of the street, heading for the fast food place next door. (He would fight from his shoulders, lightening fast punches delivered by taut muscles that hugged young bones. His center of gravity would be higher than the clerk's, but he would still be hard to knock down.)
I thanked the clerk (he'd have taken me once he knocked me down; he looked like he fought with his torso, low to the ground and strong like oak, squeezing the life out of his opponent) and I drove off into the shimmering night. I cringed as I pulled up to the only traffic light between me and home, realizing I saw in that guy's eyes was simply worry that some stuck up white lady was going to call the cops when he wasn't doing anything. Maybe the skulker's car was broken down two blocks away and he was really desperate for some cash. We're in a recession, after all. And here I was, being a stereotypical suburban white woman acting a fool because a black man was talking to me. At night. At a deserted gas station.
Maybe some other driver, kinder and richer than I, got him his gas and the skulker made it home safe. Maybe he's still skulking around that fast food joint. Maybe he's given up on this stuck up, predominantly white town and hoofed it home.
If so, he's lucky. It's a nice night for a walk.