I had an incident today that upset me.
It's hot, hot, hot in NYC, and I was having groceries delivered. The delivery guy was this very personable young African-American fellow. We talked about the heat, my lights dimming while he was there, how my block was closed by Con Ed so he had to haul my groceries from the corner, etc. I had bought one of those big packages of paper towels --with 8 or 12 rolls -- and the store forgot it. He said he'd go back to the store and get it. The whole exchange was very pleasant.
Because of the heat, I thought it would be nice to give him a bottle of water when he returned. I had already tipped him for the delivery and I don't re-tip if it's the store's/restaurant's fault. I put a bottle of water in the freezer for him so it would be super cold.
Sure enough, my buzzer rings, and it's him with the paper towels. I grabbed the water bottle and when I opened the door, he was sweating and I extended the water bottle to his face, without saying anything, like "here, cool off."
He flinched and for a second had this look on his face, which I wish I could get out of my mind -- it was fear and confusion and then he realized what it was and laughed and thanked me. I joked and said, "You thought I was going to hit you or something" in a light-hearted way and he said yes and was laughing and I said, "I'm a lover not a fighter" and he laughed, genuinely so, I thought, and left.
I closed the door and just burst into tears about the look on his face. I am not beating myself up because my intention was to do a nice thing.
But on the heels of the Trayvon verdict, who can blame this guy? He doesn't know me, and to him, I'm this old white woman. If I were to criticize myself, I would say that I invaded his personal space (however well-intentioned I was).
I think I cried because... ok, I've written and deleted a few things here. I cried because I was sad that I caused him even a second of fear; I was sad that this is the state of the world.
I thought I need to be more mindful of the stereotypes people have.
So back to taking my own advice.
Years and years ago, when my brother was in high school, he had a job at a grocery store as a stock clerk. Part of his job was to gather all the shopping carts at the end of the day. The store closed at 9 or 10 pm so it was always dark and so he would gather all the carts and as the last shoppers left, he'd wait outside so he could go get the last few carts for the night. There was always the one last woman shopper.
He told me that he can see the fear in women's eyes, in a dark parking lot, at 9 o'clock at night, alone, when this young man, comes at them. It hurt him that these women could think that of him and I told my brother that these women don't know he works for the store -- he'd have on a winter jacket, for example, hiding a uniform, and so suggested that he announce loudly as he approached the woman that he works for the store and is just coming for the cart. He took that advice and that was that.
Remembering that today, I should have just said, "Here's some cold water for you" and that would have been that.