I get to know people but I may not know names. Thirty years ago I began taking my little kids to and from their [neighborhood] schools. I often passed a corner where there is a crossing guard, hired by the school district I assume, a man of many jobs it was clear to me because crossing is an hour or two job morning and afternoon and then I observed him hurrying off to his next location.
He drove a bike in those days, in all weather he drove a bike and he did it with abandon. He flew down the road on that bike, always toward the city. I enjoyed watching him sail down the road east-wards.
In recent years, I saw him less often but he was still employed I assume in the neighborhood as I would see him walking through the cut-through in front of my house that leads to the Metro Link. Also toward the city. So he is taking the light rail now but he was working somewhere in the neighborhood, he must have known people in our neighborhood he’s been around here for so long and if you noticed him you noticed as I did that he was dependable. He was crossing kids on that busy corner in all weather then off he zoomed on his bike. If you employ people, you want to employ a guy like him.
He is a black man. I am a white man. We both have emphasized the gesture of mutual acknowledgement all these years in enthusiastic ways, but I am in a car, he is stationary on a corner and though we always exchanged greetings through the rolled down window of my car as I was retrieving or returning my children, we didn’t actually converse. It was always a greeting with verve; I looked for him he looked for me I could tell.
We have never had a conversation because in all these years I have never bumped into him walking. Here I might pursue a distraction and follow the notion how come I am always in a car in a neighborhood not too large too walk around in and especially now that my children are grown this particular vicinity should be my stomping grounds in the sense that the idiom was created I should be stomping around in it who needs a car within this five-six block radius where I hang out, sit in the coffee shop, read and write meet people, etc. My office is a coffee shop I have an office but I prefer the coffee shop.
It’s been thirty years and we have never had a conversation. Until this morning.
On this particular morning, I walked over the cut-through to go to the gym to be tortured by the trainer I pay to keep my knees in shape so I can run up and down the stairs in my palatial estate. I am recently a first-time grandfather and I intend to chase baby Harry around my house as much as he wants but my knees have been in minor rebellion these last years and I thought some serious pump-iron might help me in the future. So far – it’s working.
This morning as I was coming back from torture and approaching the cut-through from the other direction, coming toward me the way he is always walking when I have seen him in recent years (toward the Metro Link) was the man who I have been exchanging sign language with over the last thirty years.
Here I might follow another thread and write about how many black men assume you don’t recognize them I have had this feeling myself I am not that recognizable unless I am dressed up or wearing a silly hat and I can always tell from a distance on approach whether somebody who should recognize me recognizes me at all. I could see on approach he made no gesture probably accustomed to not being recognized by a white man in the neighborhood of course I recognized him right away and hollered out first to let him know I am happy to see him.
I stopped on the sidewalk in the middle of the cut-through and we exchanged the obvious: how are you, good to see you again, don’t see you much anymore, how you doing, are you still riding that bike (he was now and again but not as much as he used to), and then I said: you know, we have known each other for (I made a quick calculation) thirty years but we don’t know each others’ names. That’s wrong. What’s your name? I’m Dan, he said. I’m Jim, I said.
We greeted each other on that bridge like old friends because we are. We didn’t know each others’ names for all the wrong reasons not only the racial divide but the economics of it (he has a bike I have a car) he has a bunch of jobs I have a bunch of jobs too but mine are flexible enough that I spent a lot of time driving my kids to and from school and my jobs (maybe) paid better and he probably doesn’t know that I think of him as my friend I have known him for so long and our greetings have been so mutually effusive (we made grand gestures of greeting at every sighting in all weather during all seasons) this constitutes friendship for me in some contemporary refiguring of the term and I might be distracted here and follow a trail about friendship and I don’t what it means for him but the clue has been we have paid attention to each other for a long time now and to me he is my friend.
If you live long enough, you make friends of all kinds you redefine friend and whatever we are to each other it is something especially to me (I am shy). This morning – we spoke.