Every time I ride my bike down the sidewalk in Chapel Hill these days, I immediately remember a heartwarming encounter I had months ago, I don’t every remember when exactly it happened. I think it was an instance of having rode my bike to the bus stop (probably because I was late leaving my house), and so on my way back home from work I took my bike off the bus and started biking down the sidewalk. This may not be relevant but, (a) I have a very short commute and (b) I have about 150 feet of sidewalk to cover, from the bus to where I get on the road down the hill to my house. Chapel Hill is a small town and I have a small commute. I guess a point here is that I hadn’t been biking long, and I can be pretty unthinking while going about this commute.
Also, I had not ‘gotten in the zone’ while biking, and soon after starting biking, without having gotten up much speed, a man who I immediately assumed was homeless, turned towards me and seemed to intend to start talking to me. He was black. I immediately shut down, as I normally don’t interact with these folks and assumed he was going to ask me for money. As I imagine must be pretty common among white/middle class folks like me, I had a wide range of mixed emotions: nervousness, frustration, irritation, sympathy, sadness, discomfort, wanting to help but scared of helping; and resentment for making me feel bad about judging him and guilty for not stopping, giving him money, and more fundamentally, shutting off from him as a human being. So as usual, my response was going to be to not make much eye contact, force a smile that I hoped sincerely expressed that I wanted to acknowledge him as a human being and that his existence mattered to me, but quickly turn away and keep biking, and maybe utter a ‘Sorry; have a good day’.
At this point I feel like adding that all of this took place in about half a second, as we got closer to each other.
He kept trying to make eye contact and started gesturing and pointing. His eyes seemed to be eager for me to listen to him. So I stopped, and pretty quickly realized that he was pointing behind him, sneakily, to the two cops farther down the sidewalk!! Again, immediately, everything caught up with me. At this point, much farther in the future, it’s easy to look back on this and feel happy and laugh about it. But in the moment it was also really powerful. What a sweet encounter! This man who I only saw in terms of how he was causing me discomfort and how I could keep him at bay in the least guilt-inducing way, went out of his way simply to help me out and keep me from getting a biking-on-the-sidewalk ticket. And he did it with a big grin on his face!
My post below about the woman in the thrift store speaks to a similar experience of being humbled by other people’s behavior, that caught me off guard and roughly exposed my prejudices. This event on the sidewalk brought me joy, was a great slash at my ego, and a great reminder that the people I pass on the sidewalk most days are just as full human beings as I am.
Thanks to that man!!