I was sweaty and tired. Just wrapped up a 9 hour day of priming my house. If you know me, then you know that a day (and two more ahead of me) isn’t the sweet spot. But here I am painting my new house, in a new neighborhood, in a new city.
Unbeknownst to us before buying, our home sits right on the edge of a small development made up of retired white people from what we had witnessed the past week. They came in droves, offering goodies and introductions. The kids have no shortage of sweet old ladies to get snacks from, that’s for dang sure. It’s cute but I do wish we had more families to add some action to the mix and kids to play with. But as I was wrapping up, I noticed a young black fella walking down the road. Knowing the heightened state of affairs and the demographic of the neighborhood, I wondered which house he was going to. I didn’t give it much time and kept painting.
I heard a voice, “Hello sir! Can I talk to you for a second?” I turned and saw him standing on the edge of my lawn. He was well dressed in a button down shirt, tie and khakis. A badge of some sort hung around his neck. I immediately thought I was going to be sold something I didn’t want. Before I could act like I had something urgent to get to, he went straight into why he was there. His presence was warm and inviting. He was selling magazine subscriptions to earn points which got him more money towards his tuition. It also provided him the opportunity to get promoted in his current role. I couldn’t follow the exact details, not because he didn’t explain them well but because I was consumed with how he thought/felt about the current tensions. I admired that he was still out here doing what he did . . . even this week, undeterred. A week that has everyone on edge with emotion of all sorts. Whatever his reason, he was committed. Wondered if I could/would do the same?
He looked hot so I asked him to join me in the shade. Here he was, a young black man in a neighborhood full of older white people in NC. As he talked about his program and the magazines I could subscribe to, he stopped, “Sir, I’ll be reaching in my back pocket.” I smiled and told him no problem. I tried my best with my body language and demeanor to let him know all was well, that I was not alarmed in the least. But the moment was poignant. He had been rightfully trained to tell me that because many would assume he was reaching for a weapon and we all know what happens next. The headlines flooded my consciousness again. I honestly just wanted to hug him. That was my first reaction. I didn’t but sure wanted to.
As he handed me a sweaty piece of paper, he told me how hard he has been working the past year so he could fulfill his goals. Back and forth we talked for 10 minutes. He asked me what advice I could give him for his future success. I told him these three things:
- be on time and presentable
- be honest
- do what you say you’ll do and are asked to do
I told him that life and success in your job really only requires those in order for good things to happen. Just as that left my mouth, I felt VERY white. Those three things are all that is required for ME but not for him. Sure, I couldn’t address racial inequity in the moment but it sat heavy on me. A big grin crossed his face and he said, “It is so funny you said that as Mr. ______ down the road 3 houses just said those exact same things. I should probably remember them!” It was genuine and I could see that it made whatever his goals were seem more achievable. I told him that I hadn’t known him long but I could see how dedicated he was to being the best he could and working hard to get there. He smiled big again and said, “Yes sir! I’m actually off on Sundays but I wanted to get a jump on the week. I’m close to 20,000 points. The best part is that you’re my last stop of the day and you got me the most points today.” It felt good for both of us but then . . .
He started to reach into his back pocket, “Sir, I’m reaching into my back pocket.” We had already spoken at length, so this second time it really hurt. I know it was just automatic for him but I was trying my best to disarm and encourage him throughout our time. It wasn’t enough and how could it be? Because that’s the thing . . . you can’t erase history. You can’t say that everything is ok just because it is for you, right now with the person you’re with. He was trained to do that because it was and IS critical to his safety as he said. It doesn’t matter what I think or how I act. He NEEDS to make that statement.
We shook hands. I said that I hoped to see him again as he walked away. I turned around to look at my freshly painted white house, overshadowed by huge oaks. My pristine white house. I wondered how he felt standing there. If my house looked like me to him. But nonetheless, I still cherished the moment. No matter the national tensions, two men met, shared, trusted and encouraged.
There was great hope in that. Every month those magazines come, they’ll mean way more than the content inside.