I was driving to work the other day, listening to my usual, trashy, rage-inducing morning show, when the hosts posed a question that left me bewildered. “Do you answer your front door?” Caller after caller from the suburbs rang in to declare that they would never answer the front door, and to warn other listeners against responding to that tell-tale knock. Peoples’ answers varied from the callous (“I hate the Girl Scouts”) to the paranoid (“Remember, professional burglars pose as cleaners and repairmen all the time”). One woman replied that she would actually go into the bathroom with her toddler until she could be sure the expectant caller was gone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!
Now, I won’t lie. I can’t remember the last time I answered a front door. I’m pretty asocial, and I don’t go out of my way to engage with other people. I’ll actually fake a phone conversation to avoid saying hello to people I know, so you can imagine how it goes with strangers. I had always chalked that up to my own, personal neuroses and singular character flaws. I’d heard the statistics that social media and technology has increased narcissism and decreased empathy, but I had no idea our society had become so sick as to ignore young girls and fear our neighbors. But then–how could I forget the man shot to death in North Carolina when knocking on a stranger’s door because he needed help after a car accident… Iguess this is the world we live in, and, from one asocial, excessively-nervous person to (apparently) thousands of others: it’s not okay.
I want to take the time to tell a few stories, because anecdotes can be lessons and good reminders. I live in Cleveland, Ohio, fairly close to downtown. When I first told a co-worker where I was moving, she replied, “Oh, that’s where the prostitutes are!” before bashfully clamping her hand over her mouth and blushing. Other people I told followed suit, and the more acquaintances advised me to “carry a firearm,” the less proud I was of my shiny new apartment with its wooden floors, historic features, and spacious rooms. The more terrified I became of my “bad neighborhood.” There’s a problem inherent in letting others do your thinking for you, and it’s that you never get to find out for yourself.
When I first moved into my apartment, I was standing outside with my parents, puzzling over how to move an all-too-heavy chair the required distance without a set of wheels. Down the street, I could hear a three-wheeled grocery cart approaching, and I could see the man driving it. He was a black man with baggy, faded clothes, and very few teeth. He had a bandage on his forearm. My heart leapt into my throat, and I frantically bent to lift the chair. I was desperate to look strong, capable, and busy. I also wanted to get my parents into the building as quickly as possible. I had grown up in a peaceful, middle-class suburb, and then I had lived in Oberlin. I wanted to protect them from what my neighborhood was supposed to be. I don’t hesitate to admit the thoughts I had, ashamed as I am to have had them, because hiding our prejudiced thoughts is one way we fail to confront and move past things like racism. Pretending it doesn’t exist only allows it to silently grow stronger, even within our own, well-meaning hearts. So, yeah, I felt scared and frantically tried to move this ridiculously behemoth chair because I didn’t want to talk to the homeless guy that was approaching me. That’s the beginning. Do you want to know how the story ends?
The man came up to us and commented on the size of the chair in comparison to the size of me. He asked if my dad could lift it. The answer was no. So the man lifted the chair–by himself!–and put it on his cart. Carefully, he helped us wheel it to the fire escape stairs, and then he asked what floor I lived on. He carried that damn chair up two flights of stairs and put it in my new apartment. My mom paid him $40 for helping us out of our (honestly) desperate situation, and he refused it. He said he was just trying to help some people who didn’t have what they needed. My mom only convinced him to take the money by saying that she understood and now she was returning the favor. He left, and I haven’t seen him since.
Here’s another story. I was walking down a fairly developed street, much “nicer” than my side of town, and a woman approached me. It was -20 degrees outside and snowing, but she only wore a light jacket. She directed me to an alcove where the wind wasn’t as intense, and told me she needed bus fare to get back home. She told me she had tried asking dozens of other people, but I was the first person on that cold, windy night to have stopped and listened–to have even seen her. (And, to be fair, I had walked right past her the first time.) I gave her $10 without question. It was money I had planned on spending at a bar with my friends, but I realized that I could still go into that bar where it was warm, and no one would kick me out because of how I looked, even though I would have no money. I realized that I had a car with a full tank of gas that would get me back home, to my apartment in all its glory. I gave her my $10 because it was freaking cold outside, and no one on that busy street with its microbreweries and fancy restaurants had noticed or tried to help a woman in a thin sweatshirt.
Another story: yesterday, I was pumping gas. Even though it’s in my “bad” neighborhood, I tend stop there after work instead of driving a few block further, because it is usually a few cents cheaper than anywhere else in the city. It’s not the most relaxing place to stop my car and stand outside alone, so I’m always on high-alert. I saw a guy walking over from the abandoned lot next door, and I immediately kicked myself for not closing my window while I waited for the gas to pump. I was wearing a tank top and leggings, and my hair was up in a loose bun. I bit my lip. I was so not in the mood to be hit on by a homeless guy. Instead, the first thing he did was ask me about my bike rack.
“Do you like bikes?” he called as he walked over. “Yeah,” I replied, a little anxious still, feeling trapped. There was nowhere to run if the occasion called for it. “Me too,” he said, continuing our innocuous conversation. When he got close enough to see me through my window, he stopped, keeping a respectful distance. “It’s a great day for riding bikes. Why aren’t you riding your bike?” I told him mine was broken, and we talked about the weather some more. He asked me where I lived, and I told him a general 5mi radius, but not the name of my building. He asked me if I was a student (nope), what my name was (Jen), where I worked (museums), and then he laughed, because he said I looked and acted more like a “Jessica.” His name was Harold. We shook hands.
After a few more minutes, he asked if I could spare a few bucks for bus fare. I told him all I had was a ten, and that I couldn’t spare the whole thing, but that I would go inside and get some small bills for him. He helpfully finished pumping my gas while I locked my car and went inside. “Don’t worry,” he assured me as I left my car. “I’m from the ‘hood. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with your car while I’m here.” I laughed nervously. When I emerged with the money, I handed him a few dollars and the candy bar I had bought to break the ten. He thanked me and told me to enjoy the weather. My car was still there. Nothing was missing. I drove home, and did, indeed, enjoy the weather.
I wanted to tell these stories, because I’ve come to realize that when people tell me I live in a “bad” neighborhood, they’re really saying I live in a “poor” neighborhood, and they might even associate that poverty with blackness. I wanted to tell these stories because I’ve found that the people who claim they “don’t see color,” are the very same people who worry that their new, upscale grocery shopping experience downtown will be ruined by “panhandling.” When they say they don’t see color, are they really saying that all they can see is wealth?
I’m not naive. When I told a friend that I was trying to be more open and less afraid of people, he reminded me that, to some extent, my fears are valid. I am a small, young woman, and there may be people out there who want more than a bit of change. Cleveland has a shockingly high sexual crime rate and a terrifingly corrupt police. I know this, and I take precautions. When I walk out my door, I walk out prepared to drop all my belongings and run if I need to. But I also walk out my door prepared to meet my anxieties head on and unpack them, to examine why I’m afraid, and to question the roots of that fear. When I actually investigated what was going on in my brain, I realized that the bulk of my panic comes from the various media I’ve consumed since birth, those age-old (misleading) stereotypes of white female vulnerability and black male violence, and the privilege of my upbringing. I know many others like me, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that if we can recognize and take steps to move past it. The danger comes when we ignore the effect it has on the way we relate to and regard other people in our communities. Because…ultimately, what I’ve learned, is that 90% of the people knocking on my proverbial door are asking for help, or offering help, and when we hide from that–and teach our children to hide from that–we’re teaching future generations that people who don’t look like us, that don’t live like us, are scary and “bad,” and that is 100% not okay.
So, my challenge to you (and to myself) is to look people in the eye and smile more often. If someone asks for money or help that you can’t give, apologize and wish them well. If you have the time, see if you can help in other ways. Don’t whip out your phone and pretend to text when you see another person walking down the street. Don’t cower behind the ficus in your living room when you hear the doorbell ring. Go out and greet your fellow humans with a little bit of humanity.