Yesterday, it reached 105 degrees here in the DC metro area. In the morning we went to the museum in DC but then came back because it was so hot we could not even form words. We could not even jump into the pool. All we could do was lay around with the lights off watching How To Train Your Dragon while eating popsicles. A young Internet salesman showed up on our doorstep and knocked on the door – when I opened it I was surprised to find him standing there, because we hardly ever get visitors in our remote suburban neighborhood, and it was too hot for anyone to even knock. He was black and spoke with a French accent so I assumed he was from one of the French-speaking countries in Africa, maybe Senegal or the Ivory Coast. He was sweating profusely, his name was Wilkens. I noticed that he had walked up our long steep driveway. In. The. Ungodly. Heat. I asked him – incredulous – where his car was, if he had really walked all the way up our driveway in the terrible heat. He said he had a car but was concerned that people might not want him to drive up their driveways in the neighborhood, so he parked down in the cul-de-sac and walked up all of the long driveways.
He told me that he was selling Internet connectivity stuff that would be speedier and save us money. I told him my husband was the one he needed to speak to so he said he would come back later, after he had visited our neighbors. I asked him if he wanted a glass of ice water. He seemed surprised. He was one of those people that just emanates niceness and civility. But the thing is – he was a black man in white suburbia, going house-to-house and knocking on doors a week after the Trayvon Martin ruling. A ruling that must not be very far from his thoughts, as he walks up driveways.
He said would appreciate some water, so I went to get him a big glass of ice water. As I poured the filtered water into the glass I remembered our old babysitter, Graciella, telling me how one of the moms she worked for had scolded her for using a glass to drink out of – that she was only to use paper cups for herself, as if she was somehow contaminated. She had walked across the border from Mexico all by herself when she was just 17, and had spent months living homeless on a park bench until she could find work. Eventually, she got her papers. I knew the mom she worked for – this mom seemed like a nice, normal person who understood people, and she was a psychologist, to boot. But she wouldn’t let Graciella – who had cared for her child for years – drink from her glass cups. I remembered how on Christmas day, I telephoned Graciella at her home to wish her a Merry Christmas. There was this long pause on the end of the phone. After the pause, she told me that in the 15 years she had worked for families in the U.S. – I was the only person she worked for who ever called to wish her a Merry Christmas. She cried.
As Wilkens drank the water I scolded him for being out in the death-heat and not driving his car up the driveways. He smiled.
“You never know how people might react,” he said.
“Just for driving up their driveways?”
“It’s better to just park at the bottom,” he said.
A part of me thought, how ridiculous to not drive your car up a drive way – but the truth is I am not black in today’s America. I’m white. I enjoy a level of privilege that up until President Obama’s speech yesterday – I had started taking for granted. President Obama’s words reminded me how privileged I am, how unfair things are, still. He described how every black teen, including himself before he was a senator, has been trailed by security in department stores. Has been watched, doubted. Suspected. I’m pretty sure if Trayvon Martin had been white, and George Zimmerman black, that the verdict would have been different.
Wilkens handed the empty glass back to me, thanked me, and said he was going to go next door (to Steve’s house) to talk to him before coming back to our house. After what I knew about Steve, I didn’t think it would be such a good idea for this young man to walk up his driveway but I had no idea how to convey that to him – or if I should.
“Are you sure you’re going to walk up his driveway?” I asked. “Maybe you should drive up.”
He said he was going to walk up, and we said good bye.
Two years ago, my neighbor Steve came running up to me – sweating – on high alert, nearly in tears, because a black man had walked up his driveway and knocked on his door, ostensibly – he said – to sell magazines. He was beyond agitated. He had heard about a band of gypsy-like burglars – young black men going house to house ostensibly selling magazines. But what they were really doing, he said, was casing our houses so they could burglarize them. They had already robbed numerous houses – not in our neighborhood, but somewhere nearby. He had heard this from his sister.
“Lock your door,” he told me. He had real fear in his eyes.
It’s important to note that the number of times I have talked to Steve over the last 9 years I can probably count on one hand. We never speak, despite the fact that we are neighbors. To me this makes the fact that he felt the need to run over to my house to warn me that he had seen a black man walk up his driveway even more disturbing. I understand that Steve was feeling anxious about the band of gypsy burglars, however he did not say ‘a man,’ - he specified it: a black man. I bet if it had been a white man walking up the driveway Steve wouldn’t have gotten himself into such a tizzy, and had he come running over to tell me about it (which he wouldn’t have because the man was white) he would not have said he saw a white man walk up his driveway. He would have just said man.
After the teen knocked on his door, he paid a security company to install a whopper of a security system – one so fantastic that if a squirrel farted in the forest, the exterior of his house would instantly flood with football-field lights and alarms. It cost five thousand dollars. He apologized in advance for any noise or disturbances from the alarm system – but what else could he do? He was going to protect his family, and did I want the security company to drop by my house and give us an estimate, too? I told him no.
I said, “Aren’t you going a tad bit overboard here?”
I explained that the same young man had come up my driveway, and that I had in fact bought some magazine subscriptions from him, as I had done the previous year, that the whole thing was above-board. No one was casing anyone’s house. Did he really need to go to Defcon 10 just because a black teen walked up his driveway?
“But where was his car?” he asked, as if not having a car in the burbs was evidence of criminality.
I told him that he doesn’t own a car – he’s a teenage boy from Southeast so he got a ride in a van with a group of other at-risk teens from their church leader so they could sell magazines. I had even met the driver of the van myself, the year before.
I don’t remember how our conversation ended – I recall that I didn’t succeed in talking Steve down from his White-Suburban-Male freakout, and how shocked I was at how overt his racism was, his profiling. What if Steve had owned a gun? The young man who had walked up his driveway was just a teen trying to better himself, and this was so obvious that I just couldn’t believe Steve was freaking out in the primal way that he was. There was no talking him down from Defcon, either.
I asked Wilkens if he’d like a bottle of water to take with him – and he very graciously said yes, he would. I went to the pantry and found that we were out of bottled waters, so I grabbed a Snapple and gave it to him. His eyes lit up and he said, “I can’t believe you’re giving me a whole Snapple.”
A whole Snapple? What country was he from?
“It isn’t cold,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “I thank you for your kindness. I know that after meeting your neighbors they will tell me that you are the nicest person in this neighborhood.”
Unlike people in his homeland, my neighbors and I do not even know each other, nor do we want to know each other. Our only interaction is a required half-wave at one another while driving, one that reminds me of half a Nazi-salute and that gives me the chills because it is in reality, so hypocritical. All the half-Nazi wave does is allow the person lifting their arm to feel as if they live in and are part of some kind of community, amongst neighborly people who like each other and say hello, when in fact we are all isolationists separated by ranch-style fences on 3 acres, who want nothing to do with one another (aside from that silly wave). I am sure that if he were to ask the neighbors about me, he would find out they don’t like me because I don’t play Bunco or attend Silpada parties, I bought magazine subscriptions from the black teen – two years in a row! – and I don’t wave because I find it hypocritical.
He came back later and sat with my husband for an hour, geeking out on Internet mumbo-jumbo. After he left I said, “Isn’t he the nicest young man? What country is he from?”
He told me Haiti. This young man was from Haiti. God knows what happened to his family or what he has been through – but when I heard this, I understood how his eyes widened when I gave him what to me is a small and insignificant thing – a Snapple – and he said the words, “I can’t believe you gave me a whole Snapple.”
A whole Snapple. Just those words, say so much.
Because where he’s from, I bet if he had a Snapple he would probably share it with his neighbors.
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