“Do you like Led Zepplin?”
I turned around to see who was asking that question. It was the man I had just past and made polite eye contact with on the sidewalk. He had turned around in the middle of the intersection to ask me that question.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked him while taking a few steps closer to him to be able to hear better, not really thinking I had heard him correctly.
He gave me a surprised look, but asked again, “Do you like Led Zepplin?”
It was at that point that I noticed that he was listening to music so the question did in fact make sense. I told him I didn’t know much about them, but gently took hold of his arm to steer him out of the intersection and back onto the sidewalk in case any cars came, as it was dusk and the cars wouldn’t be able to see us well.
He looked even more surprised then, but very willingly followed my lead. I could tell he wanted to ask me something, so I looked him in the eye and waited for his next question.
And so there we stood for the next few minutes or so, him asking me where I’m from, me explaining I’m from South Carolina, and him explaining that he had looked for work out there. I asked him if he was looking for work here in El Paso, though he never really answered.
He asked again where I was from, and I repeated South Carolina wondering a bit where the conversation was going. But then he clarified that he meant where was I coming from, as in where had I just left to now be walking down the sidewalk. I explained that I was leaving the staff meeting for the homeless shelter that I work at, ready to next answer his questions about whether or not he could stay there. But that question never came. Instead, he just asked for clarification to make sure he heard me correctly.
He then said that he was lonely and was glad to meet a friend and introduced himself and stuck out his hand to officially greet me. I told him my name and warmly shook hands with him and said I was glad to meet him too.
After a few more minutes of small talk he asked if I smoke cigarettes (no), coke (no), eat chips (no), until he finally looked a bit exasperated and asked if I ate at all. I laughed and told him of course, just that I try to be healthy.
Then there were about five seconds of silence in which neither of us spoke and were just looking at each other. Then, with slight embarrassment, turning his head down slightly looking a bit incredulous, he asked, “And so you’re not scared of me?” Taken aback by his question I immediately said no with a confused look on my face. He repeated the question again and again I replied with a firm no.
“You’re courageous,” he replied.
Without a hint of hesitation or sarcasm I ask him simply, “Why?”
At this point he looked even more taken aback and just repeated that I’m courageous. I shook my head no to signify that I didn’t agree and repeated my same question, “Why?”
This time he paused a little longer to think about it, clearly not expecting me to question this notion and just said, “That’s a hard question to answer.”
I know that at that moment he were both probably thinking about the same things: that he was a poor Hispanic man, probably in his 50’s, whereas I was a middle class young white female with my backpack full of the things I had been using on my day off, including my laptop, though he may not have known that detail.
So we were probably both thinking that our class, race, age, and gender differences, according to the mainstream social rules, should have told me to feel scared, or at least uncomfortable. But I wasn’t.
After we just stared at each other for a few more seconds, neither willing to actually acknowledge what we were thinking, he then changed the subject, saying that he would like me to be “company” to him and that we could go someplace together. I decided it was probably time to end the conversation, as I had no desire to be physical with him (or any random stranger that I’ve ever meet). I told him I was due at the shelter for dinner at 6, which was in about 10 minutes and it was on the other side of downtown (which was not a lie, as that was exactly where I was headed before I ran into him).
He then thanked me for taking the time to talk to him as a friend, because he really needed one. I thanked him for his conversation as well and we parted ways.
For the 15 minute walk back to Casa Vides I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation and how appalled I was that he was so surprised that I was not scared of him. I wasn’t uncomfortable by his presence at all, just by his question. Even more by the fact that while I could honestly answer that I wasn’t then, that I know that before I came to Annunciation House I know that I not only would have been very scared of a man like him talking to me on the street, I would not have even been willing to make eye contact with him (or really any other stranger on the sidewalk). Uncomfortable by the fact that that used to be true of me and is probably true of most people similar to me.
I was very practiced at averting eye contact with strangers, particularly if they were men that society had taught me to fear. And I easily could have done that with him as well, and I know that he would not have turned around to ask me if I like Led Zepplin.
And so while I know that he was thanking me for my time because the time of the wealthy is viewed as much more valuable than the time of the poor (if you need any proof of this, see my previous blog post about going with a woman from the shelter to the free health clinic for the homeless and how awful that experience was), I am truly thankful to him that he would take the time to engage me in conversation, despite him assuming that I would be scared of him and not willing to talk to him. To me, that takes courage, knowing that he has probably been shut down by people like me a lot in the past, yet he was brave enough to try again.
And I’m very thankful that I can be reminded of the importance of those small acts, like making eye contact with warm eyes, in recognizing the human dignity of all. We are the same; we are both human. No differences in race, class, age, or gender should stop us from always recognizing that. Always.