It’s 10:42 PM on a Tuesday evening in my city’s downtown. I’ve just packed up my laptop, notebooks and day timer, and wrapped my favourite green scarf around my neck. I can feel the cold air rush in every time a customer comes or goes from this coffee shop that I have made my office for the past four and a half hours.
I have been consuming articles, books, video clips, and blogs with an incessant hunger to be better, to know more, to understand deeper the concepts that will lay the background of my masters thesis. Broadly, these include topics of systemic violence, racism and discrimination within our healthcare and medical education systems. But now it is 10:42 PM and my brain is full and tired and I want to get home with enough time to review my notes in bed, before I get to sleep.
I hoist my backpack over my shoulder, take my mug, with tea dregs to the counter, and say “Thank you!” as I head for the door, ready to face the chilly April night, on the block and a half walk to my car. I get up to the first intersection, and can see my car half a block to the left. At the intersection is a young man. Tall, do-rag, face tattoos, sweater tied casually around his waist, arms crossed loosely across his broad chest. He looks up at me, and as I’ve made it habit to make eye contact with people in situations where we share space (walking down the sidewalk, waiting for the bus, riding in an elevator etc), we engage in those first few seconds of locked eyes, assessing each other, both anticipating our next moves. He, claiming the street corner as his space, hand tattoos peek out from his long sleeves, ripped jeans , I can’t tell if they are a fashion statement or a product of life as a street kid. Me, a blond, white, backpacked up student, heading to my car, to drive home to a house where I rent a room, and get up the next morning to make breakfast in my kitchen before I go to university. I describe myself like this for a specific reason, to recognize the privilege that I walked out of that coffee shop, and onto “his” street corner with, that same privilege that follows me, and prepares the way for me, through every step of my life. The colour of my skin, my language, my education, the way I fit into our Western society with so much ease, so little resistance.
He speaks first, “Can you spare any change”, he doesn’t ask it, he says it, almost giving me permission to write it off, not requiring any response. I reply with a half smile, “Not tonight, sorry” breaking our eye contact, I continue to my car.
I immediately start justifying my reaction inside my head. “I only carry credit, I don’t have cash,” “Why did you say sorry?” “It’s ok, you’re allowed to just want to go home.” I can feel him behind me still, walking with me, a few steps behind. I could feel his presence but was not upset by it, I didn’t get that “creepy feeling” that many women know all too well, when someone strange to them is in their space. I step out onto the road to get to the driver side of my car, and he speaks up again, “how about now?” jesting, a lightness in his voice. I have never been more aware of my position of privilege. The fact is I do have very minimal disposable income, life as a student isn’t cheap, especially living in a city away from family supports, but I recognize that despite that, my backpack full of pricey gadgets and my car, set me apart from this young man with his borderline intrusive sense of humour. I smile, make eye contact, and say “still no…” as I try to push the button to unlock my car. (Side note if you can identify with my “backpack full of pricey gadgets” PLEASE read Peggy Macintosh’s – “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” find it here http://code.ucsd.edu/pcosman/Backpack.pdf)
My car is old. It has it’s own personality, and tonight, for the first time in over a year, the unlock button didn’t work. I pressed it a few times, jiggled it, pressed it a few more. Things were getting awkward between me and my new acquaintance as he watched me struggle to get into my car. I knew I would have to use the actual key to open the door, which usually one would think is no issue. However, I know, because of previous faulty unlock button experience, that as soon as I opened the door manually with the key my car alarm would go off. I’ve perfected the art of jumping in and shoving the key in the ignition after one long draw out horn blast, so as to be as minimally intrusive into the semi-silence that usually surrounds parked cars. Tonight, my previous “fling the door open, hop in, shove key in” routine was thwarted by the huge backpack on my back, which nearly knocked me to the ground as I bounced off the doorframe. My car was on its fourth or fifth horn blast before I got it shut off. I glance over to the sidewalk where the guy was and I see him throw up a peace sign and just walk away, as if I had done it on purpose, as if I was trying to draw attention to him or myself, or us.
I pulled away from the curb and up to the lights, where he was back at the same corner he had been when we first connected. I shuffled through some of the crap in my car, found a few silver coins, pulled over, rolled my window down and he came over. “Look, I don’t have much but you can have this if you want it.” I held out the 80 cents as he pulled a little ziploc bag out of a pocket and gingerly put it in. He said “hey I’m freezing mind if I warm up, we can just chill here.” I had a visible, audible dilemma. I looked at him, I ran both my hand through my hair, I held the longest “ummmmmmm….errrrrr….ahhhhhh” he was just staring at me. The best I could come up with was “well what’s your name?” He told me his name, and the community he was from, and I said “ok get in”.
The next hour and a half consisted of us cruising around downtown streets. I told him a bit about myself, my name, where I was from, what I was studying at school. He told me that he grew up in foster care and has been on the street since 16. He was now 28. He said he loved hiphop and rap, and that he picked up a bit of Arabic (in prison I think). He told me he doesn’t really know people from his home, and doesn’t know “his language” . He said “everyone’s a neighbour here”. He pointed out parkades where he liked to freestyle, and wanted to stop in one to show me some moves. He twisted my scarf into a ring design and tried to trade me mine for his, he told me he liked wine and asked if I would buy him a bottle – using that same jest he used earlier, probably knowing the answer was no before he asked. He told me that he had broken ribs, seemingly on purpose and when I asked “why?” his answer was “sometimes you just push your body so hard to see how far it can go”. He told me how he sometimes doesn’t eat for two days, and when he does he just drops in at a shelter. He said he sleeps sitting up, not really sleeping, more meditating. He told me about his vision for himself and the world – a vision of everyone following their passions and doing good in the world. He really wanted to be the best at hip hop. We ended up back at the same spot where we first locked eyes, and he wanted to show me some youtube videos, one of himself rapping, another of one of his favourite hip hop artists. We chilled. We laughed. We used each others names when we spoke. Somewhere in that hour and a half he said to me “I haven’t had a conversation in so long” and at another point he said “I feel a sense of … I don’t know… comfort.” I eventually had to cut this night off, I had to tell him I had to go, and ask him to get out of my car. I watched him wrap his black scarf around his face and neck, while saying to me, “It’s black like a crow, women are supposed to be scared of crows”. I just listened, and let him finish wrapping his scarf, take the sweater from around his waist and put it on, throw his hood up, we locked eyes once more and then he hopped out and was gone.
There’s something to be said for stepping outside of your comfort. There is something to be said for making connections with people who you would typically never have a chance to. I lost an hour of sleep, but gained a connection that was impactful enough to inspire a blog post. I know that if I told this story to certain people in my life I would get a range of reactions, mostly questioning how I could be so reckless, so inconsiderate of “what could have happened”. I respect that. There are social norms for a reason. “Don’t let strangers into you car on deserted downtown streets late at night” seems to be a pretty sensible social rule. But I broke it. In the time it took me to say “ummmmmmm….errrrrr….ahhhhhh” I had decided that I was going to let this guy into my life for a bit, just as he was letting me into his.
There’s this quote I scrolled past on Instagram a few days ago, and it stuck with me… “If an egg is broken by outside force, life ends. If broken by inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from inside.” (I can’t remember who said it but I’m sure a quick google search will do it justice if you need to know.) Our comfort zones are like that egg. If outside forces intrude on what we have defined as our safe place, our egg, it can often be detrimental to us, we miss opportunities to grow and are hindered from living our lives fully. If we make those choices to break out of our safe, egg-like, comfort, our lives can change, and in some senses begin.
Please, for the sake of my conscience, do not take this blog post as encouragement to put yourself knowingly in dangerous situations, for a chance to “connect”. But do challenge yourself to reflect on what your comfort zone is, why it is the way it is, and if you can do anything to push on that egg from the inside. Read Peggy McIntosh’s article (link above), and if you find that you wear that invisible backpack, have the humility to reflect on it, and be gracious for the leg up that you have because of it. This is not a challenge to your hard work, your sacrifices, your struggles, it is not my purpose to diminish any experiences you have had to get to where you are, or are going. I ask that you use this as an opportunity to reflect on where you stand, how you got there, and how you might use where you are to make life less difficult for someone else.
Love always, and all ways.