To be taken back so far so quickly. To think that all someone had to do was suggest that I move my car. That I stop helping to dig out this African stranger’s minivan from the street and move my vehicle, so that someone else could pass. Maybe it was the way he said it.
“Yo, you need to move that car though.”
Maybe it was because he was a large black man, taller than myself, and visibly angry. Although certainly not angrier than I—I’ve never been able to admit that possibility.
Maybe it’s due to my own expectations of him. Of his type, and what I was willing to stand for, or what I wasn’t willing to stand for any longer—at least not at this moment. And all that good will and solidarity and kinship that I had imagined sharing just minutes ago melted off my hot skin like I wished that god damn snow would. And my heart rate skyrocketed and I was afraid, but I was so angry. I trembled. Angry like the time I told some jock in high school: I will whoop your fucking ass, over some offhand comment during a basketball game. Back then, I remember Clarence laughed and said: “Yo, I can’t believe you said that.” But there was no blood, even though for hours after I wished there was.
I was angry like when that fat blonde kid Anthony at Harding Middle School got laughs at the expense of my blackened, Kool-Aid tarnished teeth. “Shitmouth,” he would say. Until one day in gym class when Anthony wasn’t saying a word, I sat two children behind him, legs crossed over my dot on the floor and grew furious at his existence. I got up without speaking, walked in front of him and tried to break my fist on his flubbery fat face. My hand ached and throbbed after I returned to my seat. He stayed still with a hand on his cheek, sobbing and struggling to stay silent. A few seconds after sitting, I began to cry too, but louder, which only made me angrier. When I got home from school that day, I told Earl that I had finally stood up for myself; he called me a faggot and told me to get my shit together. It was my first suspension, but Anthony and I became friends later on and the remaining kids moved on to teasing me about other things.
When the big black guy got out of his car and told me to move I said, “Calm the fuck down, you do realize we’re busy—so unless you want to help, get your silly ass back in your car and go around.” In a way that meant: Look at me, I am way smarter and superior to you, and I’m a good samaritan and you’re just a piece of shit. It felt so good—even better knowing I could quickly reach my glove compartment even if things got hairy.
And maybe I justified it by imagining him in a du-rag and some Tims, beating the hell out of his girlfriend, smoking a Philly blunt in front of his kid and listening to Waka Flocka or some other disgrace to rap/disgrace to black like the troves of people I knew and wanted so badly for him to be. I knew I couldn’t actually reason with a scumbag like him. I had tried and failed—at my own expense—far too may times. They only understand one language. It was me or him. I needed to strike first, to come off stronger or he could just eat me alive. He might have his way with me if I don’t threaten his life, his intelligence and his manhood immediately.
But none of that shit was probably true. I was in Elkins Park, not Frankford. I was an adult, not a boy. He was a living, breathing person; not my indignant imagination. For safety, for fear, in my anger and out of desire for superiority—for higher ground—I had just gambled with his life, with my life, my freedom. But sinking back into that mode so easily, makes me feel I was never free to begin with. Hell, I could still make excuses. What if he was that guy? What if my submitting would have encouraged him? What if it would have made him believe I was weak and that he could take advantage of me? Then what?
I don’t know, maybe he’d circle the block over and over again telling me to move my car. Maybe he would run my toes over as he drove by. Maybe he would spit in my face and speed away. And what if I ran into him again? Would he remember and then escalate, had I let him off easy? If I saw him in some Chinese store in North Philly at 1:00 in the morning buying a Philly blunt would he remember, and try to rob, or attack me for being soft when all I wanted to do was get my General Tso’s Chicken and go to bed on a full stomach?
And that is how ridiculous these justifications get. Where passivity or kindness no longer mean life or death, my reflexes have yet to catch up with my comparatively bourgeoisie social situation.
He didn’t say anything after I spoke, just got back in his car and took an alternate route. But it took months for me to accept it; to realize that he was the better man.