At the time, I didn’t know his name.
All I knew was that I was in a hurry and he was partially blocking the entrance to the Shop N Save. He looked to be about 14 or 15 years old. The August heat radiating off the pavement, caused a thin sheen of perspiration to coat his ebony skin, soaking into his jeans and dark grey sleeveless t-shirt.
“Excuse me,” he said, holding up his hand motioning for me to stop.
Here it comes, I thought, He’s going to ask me for some type of handout.
He didn’t disappoint. His approach was direct and to the point.
“I need some money for the bus, could you help me?”
I’m pretty sure there is an invisible sign floating over my head that only people who are panhandling can see. It says, “Soft Touch” or “Easy Mark”, or something to that effect, with an arrow pointing down at my head.
“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any cash on me.”
He paused for just a second then said, “Could you give me a ride then? It’s just down the street,” as he pointed in a southerly direction.
“What’s just down the street?” I asked, somewhat incredulous at his bold approach. Between my less than stellar hearing, the ambient street noise, and his thick inner-city dialogue he mumbled something that I didn’t quite catch. “I’m sorry, what’s just down the street?” I repeated.
“You know, it’s next to the Walgreens” he said with equal parts exasperation and desperation, “It’s not that far.”
Still not understanding everything he was saying, I said, “I’m going to get my groceries,” and walked past him into the store. I had less than a dozen items to pick up but that still gave me plenty of time for an internal debate.
It’s not my problem … he’s young, it won’t kill him to walk a few miles … but it’s 95° …what if he tries to carjack me? … he’s a skinny kid, I could take him … but what if he has a gun? … he’s only 14 or 15 … even 14 year olds have guns these days … if he was intent on carjacking someone, would he hang out in such a visible spot? …it’s just not smart to let a total stranger in the car with you … but he seems so desperate … I could go out the other entrance to the store and circle around to my car, he would never see me … I can spare 10 or 15 minutes out of my life to help someone … it’s not my problem.
I paid for my groceries. Not bothering to take a shopping cart, I balanced my two small bags of groceries in each hand, and headed out of the store. He was sitting on the ground, back pressed against one of the brick columns that ran the length of the store. His arms wrapped around his bent legs, forehead resting on his knees, he was the picture of dejection.
He glanced up and jumped to his feet, “Yes.”
I shifted the bags in my right hand to my left and introduced myself.
Tentatively he took my offered hand, “Maurice,” he replied.
I loaded the groceries into the back of the SUV while he climbed into the passenger seat. Opening the driver’s side door, I took one last inventory of my companion before settling in behind the wheel. “So, Maurice, where are we headed?” I asked, still not understanding exactly where he wanted to go.
“I’ll show you, it’s not that far,” he said trying to reassure me. “The people from the store let me hang out, I tried to earn some money by helping people with their groceries, but nobody wanted any help,” he volunteered.
Still trying to puzzle out his desired destination I asked, “So do you live on that street by the Walgreens?”
“Oh no,” he replied quickly, “I live in the city! That street goes to the bus station.”
“If you live in the city, how did you end up out here?” I asked.
“I was supposed to meet my cousin, but I took the wrong bus. Now I don’t have any money, I’ve got to get home … this is the worst day of my life!” he blurted out.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Maurice, I really hope this is the worst day of your life, but if you live very long I can pretty much guarantee this won’t be the worst day of your life.” Before my eyes the young black man I had viewed as a potential threat morphed into a kid … lost, confused and just trying to get home.
“How much is the bus fare?” I asked.
“With the transfer, it’s $3.00, but if I ask the driver maybe they will let me ride for free.”
Good luck with that, I thought to myself.
“Let’s see what we can do.” I said, “There is always some cash scattered around in the truck I keep for tolls and such.”
“Can we look?” he said excitedly.
I pulled off the road and started rummaging through the cup holders and console. The drink holders yielded 79¢, the console revealed a long forgotten crumbled one-dollar bill along with some more change. I passed the loot over to Maurice bit-by-bit as he totaled it up.
“How are we doing?” I asked.
“We’ve got it!” he exclaimed.
When we arrived at the Metrolink station, a much more confident young man thrust his hand into mine and said, “Thank you.”
With his head held high and a bit of strut in his walk he made a beeline for the bus.
I’ve thought about Maurice several times since then. He told me what school he would be attending this fall, I have a pretty good idea what part of town he lives in … the odds are not in his favor.
I’ve lived in two houses built in 1890. I’ve learned to fix a lot of things. But the things I can fix pale in comparison to the things I can’t. I can’t fix racial strife and inequality. I can’t fix abusive cops. I can’t fix the divisiveness of Black Lives Matter. I can’t fix either of the Presidential candidates or even top 40 country music, and that’s just scratching the surface! So why even worry about it?
I’ve flirted with Apathy. I’ve considered going steady with her. If I totally committed to her and embraced her, maybe life would be simpler … I wouldn’t have to worry about all those things I can’t fix. But Apathy will never be my mistress, you see I have skin in the game.
My grandson, whom I love more than life itself, is biracial. I see him as an amazing young man bursting with undeveloped potential. Society will see him as a black man.
Already tall, when he reaches the age of Maurice, he will probably tower over me. Five years from now, will he engender fear when he approaches a sixty-something white man? Will he receive extra scrutiny when he walks into an upscale store? Will he be viewed as an automatic suspect by police?
I don’t like the term white privilege, I find it simplistic and divisive. Privilege exists on an almost unlimited number of levels that are beyond our control or influence. If you are born into money, you will have advantages that others don’t. If you are born with perfectly symmetrical and proportioned features that fit our definition of beauty, you will have advantages that others don’t. The majority of CEO’s are male, over six feet tall and have full heads of hair. Life is not, or ever will be, a level playing field.
While I may not like the term, white privilege, it would be naive not to recognize that my grandson will face challenges that I never had to face. Only by recognizing and acknowledging these challenges will we ever reduce or eliminate them. However, having challenges that I have not had, does not make him a victim. Not being born beautiful, rich, or having any of those other advantages does not make you a victim.
So where do we go from here as a society on the myriad of racial issues that face us as a species?
It would be the height of hubris for me to pretend I have the answers to those questions, but I can tell you how I would like my grandson treated (and by extension the Maurice’s of the world).
- I want him seen as an individual, not as a member of some monolithic block. As an individual he will decide what types of food and music he will enjoy. As a unique person he will decide who to vote for. As an individual he will choose his friends, his educational path and ultimately his profession. I never want him instantly categorized on any level based on his appearance.
- I want him held accountable for his actions. I want him judged but not prejudged.
- I want him given a fair chance, but not receive special consideration based on his skin color. I don’t want him awarded a ribbon for just showing up. A couple of years ago, I taught him to play chess. He has yet to beat me in a game of chess. One day he will best me, and on that day he will know he has earned that victory.
- Most of all I want my grandson viewed as child of God. Steinbeck wrote, The great change in the last 2,000 years was the Christian idea that the individual soul was very precious. Unless we can preserve and foster the principle of the preciousness of the individual mind, the world of men will either disintegrate into a screaming chaos or will go into a gray slavery.”
What do I want from my grandson?
I want him to take the bullet points above and flip them around, so that he treats everyone in the same fashion I want him treated. I want him to always be grateful for the privileges he has and never look down on those with less. I want him to love God and country. I want him to live by these simple but profound words from William Shakespeare, “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
And now the question that haunts me; If my grandson wasn’t who he is, would I have given Maurice a ride? I’m not sure …