She walked south toward the church and cast a shadow across the street in the low sun. It was a beautiful fall day. The leaves had just barely begun to show tinges of yellow and red and glowed.
The church was almost a mile from her apartment, but her bike was broken and driving seemed absurd, so she walked. Her backpack was felt unusually heavy. After fifteen minutes in the surprisingly hot sun, she started to sweat a little. She unzipped her jacket to cool off.
Down the road, through the stone gates on campus, past the others in their jackets wearing their backpacks also surprised by the heat of the late afternoon, she kept walking. On the way her mind raced through the meeting’s agenda and she didn’t hear the chatter of the other pedestrians or notice the stop signs and walk signs she passed. She walked on autopilot.
When she passed the last gate and left the stone fortress she came to the park that butted up to it on the south side. The park was bisected by two multilane streets, and was now lined with yellow tape and temporary chain fences.
Here she slowed a bit to take in the construction. Crews on all the north-south sidewalks had cut them off from the road and were erecting giant pillars of glass. They were supposed to be lights, she’d heard. To make people feel safer going south. She looked up at them and smirked at the thought–giant glowing phalluses for security.
South of the park was another section of campus, a gigantic new dorm. There had been a slew of new dorms on campus in the last decades, each more sleek and inhuman than the last. This one was grey, clear, and blocky. A new low. Again she smirked and kept on.
When she passed the dorm she looked at her phone. It was much later than she’d thought. She would get to the meeting just in time.
“Ma’am?” said a voice in front of her.
She stopped, startled, and looked up. It was a man dressed like a mix between a police officer and a crossing guard, standing at the corner of the sidewalk.
“Where’re you goin’?” he said.
“…What?” she said.
“Where’re you goin’?” he repeated.
“To a meeting,” she said, and regretted giving an answer at all.
“Where?” he said.
She couldn’t believe he’d asked again. “There,” she said, pointing behind him.
“You know you’re pretty far south, right?” he said. His look wasn’t threatening. It was more like exasperation. Like he was tired of people like her not knowing what they were doing, tired of correcting and redirecting.
She started to get angry. Who the fuck is this guy? Why the fuck is he standing there?
Then she saw the insignia on his jacket. He was with the UCPD. Knowing that only made her angrier. Because he was standing there to warn white people like her who were going south, and to keep an eye on black people going north. She started to quiver slightly with rage. He thought she was lost. Stupid. Vulnerable.
“I know where I’m going!” she said, sounding angrier than she meant to let on.
The man shook his head.
She stood for a moment to see if he was going to try anything else. Try to stop her, persuade her. But he didn’t. Evidently he’d said his piece.
She snorted and shoved past him. Fuming, she stomped the next three blocks to 64th St.
“Ugh!” yelled Zoey from behind the door, and in half a second John F. flew out and slammed it behind him.
“Man!” John F. yelled.
Heads in the kitchen turned over each other to find Manjeet, or Man (pronounced “Mhan,” he would say). The room was packed and busy with people getting beers and filling their cups with wine, liquor, and soda, but Man was easy to locate. He was tall, wore sunglasses, a headscarf, a rough beard, and a permanent smile. He had his coat on and was close to the back door.
“What the fuck, Man!?” said John F, loud even over the chatter in the kitchen and the thumping bass from the living room. He was a block of a person, square head and shoulders, and held a red plastic cup. His words sloshed against each other slightly. “What the fuck made you think that would be OK?”
“What?” said Man, who had no clue.
“Did you bring weed in here?”
“…yeah,” said Man, and smiled knowingly. It was a foregone conclusion.
“And you fucking rolled a joint in Zoey’s room?”
Man took a second to remember. “…oh,” he said. “Yeah, uh… sorry?”
“What the fuck!” John F. said again.
“John, I’m sorry, man,” said Man, grinning despite himself. He idly fingered the joint he’d stuck between his ear and his headscarf to make sure it was still there. “I didn’t know it would be such a big deal.”
“What the fuck, man? You went and rolled a joint in her room without fucking asking her? You rolled a joint on her fucking grandmother’s tablecloth? What the fuck, Man?” By now everyone had heard John yelling and was giving them their space, crowding each other toward the interior of the apartment like the police had just shown up to shut down the party. John F. and Man were alone in the rear of the kitchen.
“Whoa, huh,” said Man, and chuckled inside. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
“Fuck off!” said John F.
During the confrontation John had backed Manjeet out against the door. Now finally Man opened it and left. John followed. It was cold. Man was already wearing his coat–he’d put it on to smoke the joint–but John F. was in an orange polo with the collar popped. If he was cold he didn’t show it.
“John, I’m sorry,” he said.
Before John F. could come back at him Zoey slammed the door open and stormed out without a word. She began to furiously air the tablecloth as if it had just come down from a clothesline. John paused to look at her.
“Sorry Zoey,” said Man from a few feet away.
Zoey didn’t even turn to glare at him.
“Get the fuck out of here, Man,” said John F.
“OK,” said Man. Slowly, he started down the staircase leading to the second floor balcony. John F. stood and watched until he’d reached the lower level. Man waited for the sound of the door. When he heard it slam shut, he laughed. “Shit!” he said, chuckling.
At the bottom of the stairs he heard the door open and close again, and two sets of feet clatter down. He looked up. It was Eugene and Kevin, in their coats. “Dudes!” he said. “What the fuck!” He smiled.
“Shit, man,” said Kevin. “That was… shit.”
Eugene laughed. “Sorry for bailing on you back there.”
“What?” said Man.
“Oh,” said Eugene, embarrassed. “Uh… I hid in the bathroom when John F. came out to yell at you.”
Kevin started laughing immediately. “You what?” said Man.
“I heard him start to yell, freaked out, and hid in the bathroom until he was done. Then I left and saw Kevin, and we followed you out.” He smiled.
Man cracked, and the three of them laughed as they opened the door from the apartment complex to the alley.
“You guys wanna smoke this?” said Man.
“Sweet,” said Man. He stepped against a garage door and put his back to the wind. Holding the joint in his mouth he tried to light it, but the lighter’s flame went out instantly. He motioned for some help.
Kevin and Eugene closed in and shielded the joint with their hands, making a cup around the end. Man tried to light it again. He inhaled, exhaled. A stream of smoke followed. “Nice,” he said.
They passed the joint around for a few hits, with occasional glances behind them, and started walking south.
Then they heard the sirens.
“Fuck!” Eugene said, too loud.
“Dude, chill the fuck out, man,” said Man. But they all scooted up to the building beside them anyway and looked ahead, out of the alley and into the street.
From the direction of the sirens a man ran out. He wore a hoodie, carried nothing, and sprinted past the alley. Two seconds later three squad cars zoomed past.
They waited for about ten seconds as the sirens faded, their pitch falling as the tension eased, until two more running figures appeared in the street—they were cops.
The first ran forward, following the cars. The second looked right up the alley, and saw the three of them standing there.
“Hey!” he called out from the sidewalk. “Did you just see a black guy in a hoodie run by here?”
The three of them looked at each other quickly.
Kevin cupped his hands in front of his mouth. “No!” he yelled.
Without another word the cop bolted back to his partner. The three of them stood silently for a moment.
“Shit,” said Man, as he took another hit.
It was late on a Thursday and I was walking back to my apartment from the after-party. It was early November and people had just begun to surrender to the winter, their gear getting more and more serious as the days passed. It had rained and snowed that morning, and the ground was a mix of snow, ice, and cold mud.
For walks like this, late at night, I always stuck to the major streets. Side streets at this time of night meant trading bright lights for dim yellow ones, the occasional pedestrian for complete solitude.
The familiar buildings and signs were welcome distractions from the lateness and the cold, but I tried not to let them lull me into feeling secure. It was late, the time for vigilance. From the corners of my eyes I scrutinized anyone else I saw, trying to read as much as I could through scarves and boots and hoods. Student, student, group of students. Woman walking a dog. Homeless man. Guy leaving a bar. Third shift worker. And so on.
Finally I turned north and replaced the wide concrete expanse of the road with tree lined one-ways flanked by homes and apartments. It was quiet except for the rustling leaves. I picked up my pace, eager to get off the street and pass out
In the distance I saw someone walking ahead of me, passing through the circle of light from a dim lamppost. Short, round. From the coat and gait I assumed she was an older woman.
My legs were longer and younger, and as I walked north the gap between us was closing rapidly. I became suddenly aware of the stomping sound of my boots, too big for my feet, as they hit the sidewalk. I listened closer and heard her shuffling. I saw her pull her purse close to her, put her hand in it. Then I heard the faintest tinkling. I knew she’d grabbed her keys and was at that moment fitting them between her knuckles, in case she would have to defend herself against me.
It was a strange feeling, knowing she was afraid of me, of my shadow, the sound of my boots. I had never known anybody to be afraid of me before.
For a moment I thought that maybe I should cross the street and ease both our minds. But I thought it would be better to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. I shoved my hands in my pockets, sped up, and barreled on toward her.
In a moment I was by her side.
She jumped back and brandished her keys high, stared me in the face and made a sound that was more a chirp than a scream. It scared me and I froze, returned her gaze.
Her face was old but not too old, her hair grey but not white. She looked like my grandmother had looked ten years earlier. She was scared, eyes wide, mouth frowning
She saw me, too. My glasses, my political pins, my white skin.
“Oh,” she said, after a second. “I… I thought you were…” She stopped. We both knew what she was going to say.
I looked away and kept walking.