P.W.B. (Parking while black)

Mercy and Doug had an early dinner together last night while Aaron and I made a much-needed trip to the grocery. I forgot how wonderfully simple grocery shopping with one child is: one set of needs to be aware of; one child to talk to and laugh with while picking out produce; one set of hands to watch while pushing through the candy and battery tunnel called checkout; one mouth begging the bagger for balloons and stickers. And yet, I am sure that when I had just Mercy it probably felt like all kinds of work at the time.

As we left the main entrance of Ralph’s, there was a heated discussion taking place right outside the door. There were two young-twenties white construction workers, and one was practically shouting: “You stay here and watch him and if he so much as touches (something, I didn’t catch what it was) you come in and get me and I will come out and beat that mother——.”

I looked over to where they were facing and I saw a giant black pickup truck with wheels the size of my car parked in between two cars. On one side of the truck stood a young, twenty-something black man standing by one of the cars. He walked around the back of the car, made eye contact with these guys, then folded his arms and leaned up against what appeared to be his car.

Of course, I was parked two spaces over, so I had the privilege of entering the drama a bit. The really angry guy had gone into the store by the time I got to my car, and the other guy just sat, perched on the planter-boxes outside of the store, his eyes never leaving the giant truck or the man leaning against the car. The black guy kept shifting around, always keeping his eyes on the waiting guy by the door.

I had a lot of groceries to unload, and as I was about to finish, I saw a young lady come out of the beauty supply store next to Ralph’s in the little strip mall. She walked over to where her friend/boyfriend/husband/brother? waited. He backed the car out, then opened the door for her and she climbed into the car. As they drove slowly past me, I could see them laughing and shaking their heads at the guard still manning his post by the door.

I of course don’t know the whole of the situation. I do not know if the black guy in some way provoked the other two, but it sure seemed to me like a likely a case of two white guys in a neighborhood that was not theirs, acting with a fear and suspicion that was willing to lead them to violence. Their giant truck, absurd by any measure (as are the rims that I see driving regularly down my street), was an appropriate metaphor for the struggle for identity and power we all engage culturally. And a young man waiting for his girlfriend to come back with her hair oil was a terrible threat.

At Jennie’s funeral yesterday, someone shared about her courage. Most of us would think of her courage in terms of living with limited mobility, or caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. But this person described Jennie’s courage in terms of her raising a black son in Los Angeles. The black folk there all nodded with understanding as this person spoke from experience and said a little something about what it was like to grow up black and male in this city. And those of us whose skin puts us on the side of part of what makes that hard and courageous find that difficult to hear. And yet the little Ralph’s parking lot showdown reminds me that honestly and truly, while I can hope to empathize and understand, while I can educate and immerse, I have no idea how it feels to have someone station a “guard” to watch you because you are standing next to their car.

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