There is something that unmistakably sets me apart as being from the Midwest out here in LA. I smile and make eye contact with people in passing, even if we are strangers. Today, while waiting for the metro, I walked along the Lake station platform, passing the shaded seats for a preference to enjoy the beautiful day's sunshine hitting the furthest bench. Someone else apparently had a preference for sunshine, or perhaps wanted to avoid sitting by others, which would be quite LA like, but they only occupied one side of my sunny destination, leaving room for me to sit on the other half.
As I approached, I could sense a little tension. I don't think the black woman sitting on the bench expected anyone to join her. To ease the slight feelings of hostility and keep to keep things cordial, I gave my Midwestern quick flash of eye contact, with a smile, and slight nod of the head. I've seen quite a spectrum of reactions to this Midwestern customary practice since living in LA, ranging from people feeling awkwardly caught of guard and giving a puzzled smile back, to not acknowledging the gesture at all. This woman's reaction managed to take ME a little off guard. She immediately relaxed and her gaze went from suspicion to more trusting. To be honest, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised it had such an affect.
I took to my side of the bench, and over the sound of traffic on the highway in front and behind us, I could hear a sigh as the woman's full sized shoulders relaxed. She even let out a little chuckle. I was starting to wonder with all the relief I sensed coming from her if maybe she thought I had been strolling down the platform with a knife in hand, instead of my shoulder bag stuffed with innocent items like school books? My curiosity was increasing.
She said, "You know when I saw you walking down here I thought... well, you don't want to know what I was thinking..." She chuckled again, then told a story about what happened to her at a bus stop earlier in the morning. Her metro pass had been stolen, swiped by a Latino guy, and according to her, "I should look out for those metro pass thieves!" Apparently they are lurking at most stations, and bus stops.
She continued on, after her pass was stolen, she tried to board the bus with an explanation to the driver. The driver didn't seem to be buying it, then a "white guy, who had no business butting in," at the front of the bus, started chiming in against her, taking sides with the bus driver. Even though the story was somewhat scattered and hard for me to follow, as she seemed to be re-telling it more for her own sake to get the weight off her chest, she clearly emphasized that some harsh words were flying like nasty hornets between all three of them. The situation was certainly charged to say the least.
As I listened, I quietly began to conclude what bothered her even more than being the victim of a pick pocket. It was the "white guy" joining against her. The heart of it was that she felt judged as a black person by a white person.
She thanked me for letting her talk about it all, and from that point on we had a warm conversation. I learned that she had been a chef by trade, lost one-hundred pounds in the last year, was a single mother of three grown children, and I even saw pictures of them; like a good and loving mother she kept them in her purse. She learned quite a bit about me too. When I told her I was finally going to school to get my bachelors, she seemed surprised that I was a twenty-nine year old white girl without a college degree.
She said, "Even my daughter has her bachelors. Now, you can do it girl!"
I wasn't sure if I should take her tone to be honest criticism or encouragement, but I just politely smiled and took it as the later. Before long, the metro pulled up and we went our separate ways, but not before shaking hands, exchanging names, and mutually sharing, "it was so nice to meet you."
As I sat down for my ride to Del Mar station, where I would soon get off for a hair salon appointment, I realized that a small miracle had just taken place along my urban adventure. I still don't know exactly what the woman thought I had up my sleeve, as I initially approached her and the bench. But, I do know that as I approached her, she was still trying to shake degrading feelings of judgment from someone white, like me. Regardless, I couldn't help but feel that a little more fear and prejudice had just melted away for both of us on the sunny bench. Certainly today was one of those days a little sunshine did some good.