This afternoon I was waiting to cross a busy intersection on my usual walking route to North Station when a guy crossing shouted that I should go while I still had the chance. I knew the intersection better--the protected turn singal was green, which was the worst time to jaywalk at this particular spot. But once it was safe and I arrived at the other side, the guy asked me what I'd said to him. I explained myself, and then he asked if I worked in the area. I replied affirmatively, at Old City Hall, and then he introduced himself and shook my hand. "First, you're not scared of me, are you? A big black guy in Boston..." he said, "It's okay, I'm 47 years old, but you know. You're the first white guy who hasn't run off."
Now, I was once robbed and nearly carjacked by a man in Springfield when I was in my senior year of high school. He was African-American. Every time a black man asks me for money on the street, that awful memory flashes in my head and I get nervous. However, I counteract that feeling by working hard to keep an open mind to every situation. This man asked me for $4, explaining he was stuck because he needed to resolve some parking issue. It was sunny and plenty of people were walking around, including city officials, so I felt reasonably safe. I felt sorry for him. He seemed perfectly level-headed and friendly, and I could understand that the downtown workers might be racist towards a black man. I did not want to be one of them. I told him that I don't usually carry cash, but after another plea from him I checked my wallet, turning away from him. I didn't have even a dollar.
Unfortunately, I had to give up. He asked if I had an ATM card, and offered to give me free steak for a week, explaining he was a butcher. But that was crossing a line--again a flash of the robbery, which happened outside an ATM. I told him I had to catch my train leaving in 10 minutes, apologized, and wished him luck. Leaving him behind, I saw him approach a middle-aged white guy, probably also someone working in the area.
As I walked to the train station, I felt guilty for not being able to help. In wearing a Barack Obama button on my bag to take pride in our black president, and to remind myself to treat everyone equally. I knew this man would have trouble getting even $4, just because of his race. I tried to give myself a break, that there was nothing I could do.
Boarding the train some minutes later, I realized that I always carry something in my messenger bag, if I ever forget my wallet. A $5 bill.