Urban America. Downtown, on 24th Avenue, just off Main Street. I'm kicking trash aside as I walk to my aerobics class at the gym, wrinkling my nose at rank odors of rotting fish and vegetables in the dumpster behind the corner market.
A dusky woman nods at me from behind the grillwork of a brick tenement's doorway. I nod back, a tight nod, no smile. It doesn't pay to appear too friendly around 24th and Main, but I see her there nearly every day, and we always nod cautiously, both of us.
Her child, a boy of about 3, looks just like her. He doesn't nod. Neither do the other women and children I pass on the street.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in his sight.
For He loves the little children of the world.
As a group, we represent all the colors of God's children in the old Sunday School hymn. But as I look around, I'm the whitest of the bunch, and I don't feel a lot of love in the atmosphere.
Uh-oh. A thin black man is walking toward me on 24th, wearing a starched white shirt and loose slacks. He's strutting, jangling his arms all woogly at his sides in time to some music he's listening to.
He's a block away, but it'd be too obvious to cross to the other side to avoid him. Anyway, that would put me smack-dab into a cluster of construction workers sitting on a gritty ledge for their break.
So I stay on the same side of 24th, and the jivey guy, the man who hears the music, is getting closer, moving up fast with long, lanky strides, all arms and legs and bright eyes.
A junkie? A con man or worse? There are lots of those around 24th and Main. I study my fingernails and shift my gym bag to my other shoulder, stalling. I can't ignore him altogether. That would not just be rudeness, as it might be interpreted elsewhere. I'd be copping an attitude.
I'm a white woman, and on 24th and Main it would definitely be seen as "attitude" to ignore this man. And downtown here, it doesn't pay to have attitude.
I hear no music, see no earphones. No wires snaking down into the open neck of his gleaming shirt, no boombox hangs from one arm, so he's moving to some beat in his head.
I sneak a peek at his face, just a peek, then look away. But I saw it. Yes, I saw a beatific smile light his face. High, gaunt cheekbones, white teeth, pomaded hair shining in the overhead sun that slants down between the dingy buildings. And I can feel it, he's looking at me.
I look again into his face, fast, and he grins. I hold the eye contact a moment, and his grin widens. Do I know this man? I risk the misinterpretation of my look to stare another second....
No. I've never seen him before.
I look down and kick aside a shard of broken glass. It's amber, part of a whiskey bottle in the gutter. As we come abreast, I raise my eyes again and offer a tight smile. It doesn't pay to be too generous with smiles on 24th and Main.
He does a little bee-bop, hippity-hop, two-step to jump over another piece of glass, and he's humming, waving his arms to the inner music, grinning at me as he says, "And how're you doin' on this fine, beautiful morning?"
"Uh-oh," I'm thinking. Although he doesn't look like a beggar or a scam artist, I'm expecting a pitch, a request for money for a bus ticket to somewhere, or help filling his car with gas so he can visit his kids 50 miles away.
I tighten my smile a notch or two and avert my eyes, saying, "Fine, how're you?" It doesn't pay to put your eyes into a smile in this part of town.
"Grateful!" he says with real joy in his voice, "Monumentally grateful!" and off he strides past me, toward the corner.
I turn and stare after him with my gym bag dragging on the sidewalk. He's still moving to the music in his heart. Must be a gospel song, and I just didn't recognize the tune.
Before I realize what I'm doing, I shout, "Hey!" and he turns around.
"Have a good day," I say, and I give a little wave. Still just a bit careful, I rein it in before it gets away from me.
And he twirls and does a Sir Walter Raleigh routine, like he's sweeping off a velvet cape and spreading it in the gutter for me to walk on. Then he tosses me a huge wave, zips by the tenement where the lady and her son stand behind the grill every morning - and he's gone, disappearing around the corner with the speed and fluidity of a swimmer's flip turn.
I laugh aloud, then turn and walk on, light on my feet, unaware of the smile on my face and the fact that I'm humming "Jesus Loves the Little Children" till I near Main Street and see tight-faced people frowning at me, then looking away. Suspicious.
I dial my smile up at least three notches, all the way to Grin Level, and say, "Good morning!"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society