This afternoon I was standing in Suburban Station, waiting for a train that would take me back out to Germantown and my mechanic’s garage, when a man approached me. He was dressed in ragged clothes and one of his front teeth looked as if it was rotting away in his mouth.
He said to me, “Excuse me sister, but I was wondering if you could help me.”
Before his sentence was totally finished and before I listened to what he needed help with, I said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” Now, normally I listen to people. I let them talk to me before I make eye contact and try to honestly and sincerely turn them down. For whatever reason today, I didn’t feel like going through the charade and so I said no without any preamble and without listening to his request.
And he got incensed. He started ranting. How did I know what he was going to ask me for, that he was just going to ask me for directions, not money, about how I just assumed something about him because he was black.
There were a bunch of people standing around watching as this man screamed at me, while I stood there against a column. At one point I tried to clarify that I wasn’t turning him down and that it was more that I just didn’t want to be drawn into conversation, but he cut me off and said, “No, no, I don’t want to talk to you now. I’ll ask somebody else.”
Chances are that he was going to ask me for money and this was his indignant act to trot out when someone didn’t let him work through his pitch. It certainly felt like a solicitation for money. And there was something imbalanced about him that he would scream at a stranger in a train station when she said she couldn’t help him. But even knowing all that, it made me feel like a shitty, terrible, racist, elitist person for the next hour or so, until I was able to shake it off.